U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran took a break from Washington, D.C., and national headlines to discuss local and regional matters, including Amtrak, trade and the potential re-opening of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Garden City office, as the featured speaker Wednesday at the Garden City Rotary Club’s weekly meeting at the Clarion Inn.
Trains and planes
At the top of Moran’s list was Amtrak’s recent commitment to continue the Southwest Chief passenger train route, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and includes daily stops in Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City, at least through fiscal year 2019.
Moran and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), both members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, questioned Amtrak officials earlier this month about their plans for the route, including Amtrak’s indication it was considering replacing the train route with bus service from Dodge City to Albuquerque, N.M.
“It would mean the demise of the Southwest Chief,” Moran said Wednesday.
Moran said a bipartisan group of lawmakers from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas is working to make sure the Southwest Chief continues to provide much-needed passenger rail service across the Midwest.
To that end, Moran and Udall inserted an amendment in a proposed transportation spending bill that would allocate $50 million to Amtrak for rail repairs and other improvements along the route to keep it running for another year.
If Congress passes the bill, it still may only be a short-term victory, Moran warned. He remains concerned with what he sees as a stronger commitment by Amtrak to further develop passenger rail service in the northeastern United States.
“Legislatively, we’ve gotten the attention of the Southwest Chief CEO and his leadership team, and they have committed to keeping the Southwest Chief running as it is with no bus for an additional year. That’s the good news,” Moran said. “The challenge we face is what does that mean at the end of that year? It seems to me that Amtrak is interested in walking away from its mission, which is to provide passenger service across the country.”
Going from trains to planes, Moran said he supported the City of Garden City’s efforts to secure $20 million in grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program for the construction of a new, larger terminal at Garden City Regional Airport that could accommodate larger aircrafts. The AIP has increased the amount of federal money available to mostly rural airports by roughly $1 billion, he said.
Economy and the workforce
Moran said he was glad to see the reauthorization of the federal Perkins Grant program that makes money available for vocational and technical education, which he said is “desperately” needed to keep Kansas competitive with neighboring states in attracting businesses and workers.
“The growth of this community, the growth of western Kansas, the growth of rural America will be determined by workforce,” he said.
When it came to trade, Moran took a regional approach.
There have been some promising signs such as higher stock market prices, falling unemployment rates and the sense that the economy is growing, Moran said. But, he said, rural America isn’t necessarily seeing that growth.
For states such as Kansas, economic success will continue to rely on their ability to identify and reach global markets with their exports, Moran said.
“What Congress and the president and the administration do in regard to trade will significantly have a consequence on how we earn a living and whether we are successful,” he said.
President Trump’s “New NAFTA” trade deal is a solid start, Moran said.
“I think we’re heading in a good direction in regard to NAFTA. That is a positive development,” Moran said. “We’ve made it clear, including a conversation directly with the president, that in my view we cannot afford to walk away from NAFTA, and it needs to include Canada and Mexico.”
Moran said the U.S. must settle its trade disputes with Mexico and Canada, which he said are the top purchasers of Kansas farm commodities and Kansas products in general, respectively.
He said the U.S. must deal with China eventually.
“But this tariff increase after tariff increase is probably not the way to solve that problem, and my suggestion to the president was, let’s resolve our differences with Canada and Mexico and the European Union, and then let’s all go after China for the way they conduct their business,” Moran said.
Moran also shared a bit of news -- albeit still unofficial -- that the federal DEA is looking at re-opening an office in Garden City.
The DEA closed its local office in 2017, but according to Moran, is having a change of heart. High-ranking officials in the DEA still must sign off on the proposal, he said.
Garden City Police Chief Mike Utz, who attended Wednesday’s Rotary meeting, said he has been working with Sens. Moran and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), as well as Congressman Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), on bringing the DEA office back to Garden City.
“There is a need for our federal law enforcement partners to be in western Kansas to assist local and state law enforcement in focusing on the drug trafficking issues,” Utz said in an email Wednesday afternoon.
The final topic Moran touched on was raised by Rotarian Verna Weber. She asked him what was happening in Washington, D.C., with immigration.
“Not much,” Moran said, adding that the U.S. immigration system is “broken.”
He acknowledged that there are questions that need to be answered when people immigrate to our country: How many immigrants can our country support? How does immigration affect our national security?
But, he said, it’s time the country figure out, “a process by which (immigrants) are allowed to legally come to the country in a matter of weeks or months, not a matter of years or decades. And we are so far from that.”
“A problem we’ve had in dealing with immigration in Washington, D.C., is there are those, in this case, mostly Democrats -- I’m not intending to be partisan, but this is what we face -- who say ‘We want comprehensive, fix all the problems of immigration, or we’re not supporting anything else,’” Moran said. “And while it may be nice to deal with everything, the ability to get 60 votes for everything is pretty limited in the United States Senate. So, could we pick out the things that we actually could agree on?”
Moran said he believes both sides could agree on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which he feels most lawmakers agree is a worthwhile endeavor. The policy allows some individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and also grants them eligibility for a work permit.
Moran said that in his many years of representing southwest Kansas, he has come to value the contributions and work ethic that immigrant workers bring to their communities.
“We don’t raise our kids to do the things that immigrant labor is willing to do in order to get on the ladder of improving themselves and their families’ lives,” he said.