Huffman Speaks: Congressman addresses local issues, responds to residents’ questions
About 75 percent of the seats in Crescent Elk Auditorium were full for a town hall style meeting with Congressman Jared Huffman (D) Monday night.
In his opening comments, Huffman touched on many local, state and federal issues of concern to residents.
He said he is hopeful that Congress can soon work together on a bold U.S. infrastructure package.
“If we do that, I know one piece of infrastructure that’s on everyone’s mind in Del Norte and here in Crescent City,” he said, inciting a chuckle in the audience, “and that’s Last Chance Grade. I know that because I can’t come to visit you without driving over it.” Huffman said he just returned from a meeting of the Last Chance Grade Stakeholders group where Caltrans representatives shared some interesting data.
“Since the Summer of 2012, since I became your representative in Congress, the roadway has moved 11 feet,” he said. “It just keeps moving and it’s not going to stop.”
He said that while he would like to have been able to share maps, plans and a timeline for a bypass of Last Chance Grade, he did not have such news.
“But I can tell you that the critical federal program that we think might provide the key to funding and approval of an emergency realignment, is looking very seriously at this project and we’re working very closely with our friends at Caltrans (which) is increasingly of the view that we need to stop putting Band-aids on that roadway,” he said. “We’re under way with some key studies that will determine if they join with Caltrans and many of you here in moving forward with a realignment that would be funded with federal emergency replacement dollars.”
Huffman called the grade a priority as a congressman.
“We’ve got to get that road realigned before something truly terrible happens,” he said.
Huffman spoke of proposed cuts to Essential Air Service at the Border Coast Regional Airport, which make it possible to have commercial flights into Crescent City.
“Without it, that doesn’t work, economically,” he said. “You’ve got all these investments in runway expansions and a new terminal. There’s reason to be excited about commercial airline service in Crescent City. All of a sudden, there’s the possibility of the rug being pulled out from under, not just this community but many others for which that program is a transportation lifeline. We can’t let it happen.”
A commenter later noted the loss of airport services would have greater impact in times of emergency, especially with the next nearest airport a couple hours away.
“I agree and we’re going to fight back against this bad idea of zeroing out that program,” he said.
Before taking questions, Huffman gave his opinion on current political directives involving health care.
“I think taking millions of Americans off health care is a bad idea,” he said. “I think pulling funding for Medicaid, getting rid of coverage for pre-existing conditions, doing things that would hurt Indian Health Services and federally qualified clinics ... defunding Planned Parenthood...I think all that is very destructive and damaging to the communities I represent.”
Town Hall questions
After laying out a few ground rules, Huffman took questions from audience members, few of whom gave their names.
One audience member thanked Huffman for his work on a 20-year ban on mineral mining for waters affecting the Smith River.
Huffman replied, thanking those who helped push back on what he felt was “a truly bad idea of putting a polluting nickel mine in the pristine watershed.”
Another commenter later asked what could be done to assure the ban would not be overturned by the current administration. Huffman replied residents and state legislators need to “sleep with one eye open” and be prepared to fight any attempts to rollback the ban, legally, if necessary.
Another asked if there was any news regarding emergency funding to help local fishermen. Huffman spoke of the effect of algal blooms on the Dungeness crab fisheries, saying the late season opening had a negative effect on many fishing families.
“I’ve been leading the effort to get a disaster declaration,” Huffman replied, “I’ve been joined by your state legislators, (Sen. Mike) McGuire and (Assemblyman) Jim Wood have been great on this. The governor did his part and in the 11th hour of the Obama Administration, we got an important decision out of the Secretary of Commerce, recognizing the disaster but that’s not the final step to getting you relief dollars. What we now need is for Congress to appropriate the money. The good news is that we have a bipartisan coalition of us that are pressing that issue and it involves not just our California fishermen but lots of fishing communities up and down the coast.”
He said he is hopeful that it can be included in legislative funding at the end of April.
Del Norte County Supervisor Bob Berkowitz asked about a bill, sponsored by Huffman, which would bring broadband Internet access into all rural areas that need it, such as Del Norte County.
“How can we help you with that bill?” Berkowitz asked.
Huffman said while it is desperately needed for some communities to evolve and grow economically, he has lost faith that the private sector will rise to fill the need because it offers little profit. Huffman said while it will cost federal dollars to install fiber to many rural areas, it will return that in economic development, education, and healthcare.
Realtor Kurt Stremberg asked if it would be possible to get Gov. Jerry Brown’s support for a realignment of Last Chance Grade, since it did not appear on the governor’s recent list of priority infrastructure projects. Huffman mentioned he coauthored a letter to the governor asking that the grade be included as a priority project and last year, brought Oregon Congressman Peter Defazio, the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee down to fly over the grade and discuss it with Caltrans.
“It’s a big deal for the region and for both states and he gets that,” Huffman said. “We gotta make sure our governor gets it.”
Along with many high stakes national political debates ranging from health care to the executive branch’s ability to declare war to massive proposed budget cuts, Huffman noted the current timeline in Congress.
“Right now, in Washington, we’re a few days away from figuring out how we’re going to keep our government funded. We need to have an answer to that question by April 28, and Congress is on spring break. When we get back, we will have, literally, less than a working week to figure that one out. That’s going to fund the government through the end of September. Not long after that we’re going to face this issue called the debt ceiling where we have to figure out if the full faith and credit of the United States is going to be honored or if we’re going to start defaulting on our debt, possibly triggering a global economic collapse. Hopefully, we can figure that out...”