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U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s latest town hall on Monday afternoon was at Linn-Benton Community College, so it was fitting that the Democrat touched on education issues, including the cost of college and how military spending dwarfs that for schools.

“I’m against us having a defense budget that’s so expensive that we’re underfunding everything else,” Merkley said.

The United States needs to move beyond policing the world and provide more funding for education, healthcare and infrastructure, Merkley said.

The Senator also said it has become much more difficult for students to attend college due to the cost and the possibility of crushing debt, but it is more important than ever for young adults to have a degree, including an associate degree.

Merkley believes that the federal government should provide more funding for education, both at the K-12 and college level.

“Look at other developed countries. They are making it easier and easier (to attend college) every year,” Merkley said.

Merkley is a lead co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act of 2018, introduced by Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). In the proposal, the federal government would do a dollar-for-dollar match for state funding provided to public universities to make college affordable and debt free.

Merkley talked about a plethora of other topics, including the importance of net neutrality, the high cost of federal water and wastewater standards on small communities, the detrimental impacts of burning fossil fuels and the increasing conflict in American politics.

“The nice thing about town halls here in Oregon is we’ve been able to maintain a nice dialogue here despite the polarization in the country,” Merkley said.

The Senator said he supported efforts to reach across the aisle. “It’s tough. There’s no easy answer to this. We have to wrestle with this,” he said.

Merkley himself is open to collaborating with the other party at times, as he is working with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell on hemp farming issues and with Republican Sen. Rand Paul to limit the President’s power to use the military without the approval of Congress.

The founders never intended for a single person to have the ability to take the country to war, Merkley explained.

About 125 people — mostly seniors or LBCC students due to the 3:30 p.m. start — attended the town hall, held in the Russell Tripp Performance Center at LBCC.

Since joining the Senate in 2009, Merkley has held a town hall in each of Oregon’s 36 counties every year. Monday’s town hall was his 344th as a U.S. Senator.

During the event, he thanked the American Legion Post 10 in Albany for working to establish a suicide hotline for veterans, and provided representatives with a flag to display that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.

Brandon Calhoun of Albany, an LBCC student in the Civil Discourse Club and a Republican, said that it felt great to know that Merkley cared about community colleges and education.

Fellow Civil Discourse Club member Whitney Rodgers agreed, but said she wanted action to follow up the ideas.

Earlier on Monday, Merkley toured Freres Lumber Co.’s mass plywood panel plant between Lyons and Mill City, and met with mayors and other officials in Scio, Waterloo, Sodaville and Gates. After the town hall, he was scheduled to talk with officials in Millersburg.

Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.

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