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By Shawn Raymundo

While holding his first town hall meeting in Orange County on Saturday, Feb. 23, Congressman Mike Levin, D-CA, discussed some of his goals on Capitol Hill while touching on a host of issues, including healthcare reform, social security protections, reining in the rise of student loan debt, getting homeless veterans off the street and working with Republicans across the aisle.

Saturday’s town hall was the second in a series of monthly engagements Levin plans to hold throughout California’s 49th District, which he represents. Levin hosted the first town hall late last month at Oceanside High School in San Diego County.

This past weekend, Levin outlined his support for several pieces of legislation such as a nationwide minimum wage increase to $15, bans on offshore oil and gas drilling and the much-talked-about “Green New Deal,” the resolution from fellow House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, that intends to address climate change.

Southern California, particularly Capistrano Beach, Levin emphasized, is largely susceptible to the effects of climate change. He said he supports the Green New Deal as the U.S. needs to alter its carbon footprint while investing in new, innovative technologies for cleaner energy.

“We’ve all go to work together to reduce our emissions,” Levin said at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center.

“Never let anyone tell you that if you protect the environment and try to reduce the emissions and build the clean energy economy that it’s somehow going to be bad for our country,” he later added, referring to the criticisms the resolution has received in the media.

To date, Levin has co-sponsored 24 pieces of legislation.

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Among his top priorities, Levin is looking to get legislation passed that would move the spent nuclear fuel from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) to a permanent facility.

Levin recently launched a new SONGS task force, which he said will bring local experts and stakeholders together “to help drive solutions.” The task force, he said, will be co-chaired by Greg Jaczko, the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Rear Admiral Leendert Hering Sr.

“They’ll start meeting soon to determine the best legislative and regulatory path forward to get nuclear waste off our coast quickly and safely and once and for all,” Levin said.

During the Q&A portion of the town hall, Levin addressed the environmental risk of California’s seismic activity as a reason why SONGS should be put at the top of a list when it comes to determining a permanent site for the spent fuel. He noted that a congressional bill that died in the Senate last year was aimed at allowing for the temporary storage of the spent nuclear fuel but failed to include a hierarchy of the various sites throughout the country based on environmental externalities.

“I believe that we need to include specific language on seismic risk because there’s no other site in the country that has spent nuclear fuel, much less 1,600 tons of spent nuclear fuel, that has two active earthquake faults and a whole host of inactive earthquake faults,” Levin said. “And so, I believe any site with seismic risk like that needs to be moved to the top of the list.”

Part of the new SONGS task force’s responsibility, Levin said, will be to ensure such language is included in an updated iteration of the proposed bill.

Veterans Affairs

Levin said that one of his goals as a member on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, an assignment he said he was most proud of, is to have “zero homeless veterans in the 49th District.” He said he intends to conduct field hearings on the issue of homeless veterans in the district in the future.

“We’re going to make sure that we tackle veteran homelessness, veteran housing, veteran education because we owe it to those who served us so well to serve them equally well in return,” he said. “We must never forget that.”

Juan Valdez, a veteran and San Juan Capistrano resident, asked Levin if he was aware of the Trump administration’s efforts to privatizing Veterans Affairs health care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, last month, released its draft of new eligibility rules for veterans who can seek out medical care from the private-sector if they live a certain distance away from a VA facility. The proposed rules are meant to provide greater access for veterans who have to drive an average of 30 minutes for “primary care, mental health, and non-institutional extended services,” or 60 minutes for specialty care.

Critics of the proposed plan, such as House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, have argued that it’s an overreach from the administration as it “places VA on a pathway to privatization.”

Responding to Valdez’s question, Levin said the committee will soon be holding hearings with the VA to ensure that it’s not privatizing health care for veterans.

“If they want to provide more choice and options to you, to be able to have the best care…that’s one thing, but we cannot undermine the fundamentals of the VA, which is a unique and incredibly successful organization,” Levin said.
Legislative Battles

Levin began his town hall noting that he’s been in office for 51 days—35 of which took place under the government shutdown over the impasse to fund President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall.

Earlier this month, after signing an appropriations bill that averted another shutdown and provided $1.375 billion in new border fencing, Trump declared a national emergency to fund his wall—a staple of his 2016 presidential campaign.

“I want the residents of South Orange County and the residents of the 49th to understand the specific toll that that emergency declaration could take on our district and on Camp Pendleton in particular,” Levin said, noting that “a lot of the funds that we’re talking about here are built on military construction, military funds.”

Levin was critical of the president and his insistence that the proposed $5.7 billion border wall is necessary for national security. The freshman congressman said the emergency declaration would divert about $124 million in water-quality infrastructure and facility improvements for amphibious vehicles from Camp Pendleton.

“They deserve to have up-to-date and quality facilities for those amphibious vehicles, and if you care about safety and security, you need to make completely sure that we care about the readiness and preparation and safety and quality of life of the men and women who serve greatly at Pendleton,” Levin opined.

The day before the town hall, Levin joined three other congressmen, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, on a visit to the San Ysidro port of entry. He pointed out that San Ysidro has some of best technology when it comes to border security and that funding should go toward ensuring that the rest of the entry ports in the U.S. are brought to the same level.

“The package that was agreed on in the appropriations bill, it did provide additional personnel and additional technology funds. And that’s what’s ultimately needed,” Levin said. “We need to get the standard that we have at San Ysidro, one of the finest that we have in the country, we need to embrace that sort of technology and that sort of personnel all across our 330 ports of entry.”

Levin also stated that the U.S. needs to have a new president in the White House following the 2020 election.

Cody Martin, a city council hopeful in last year’s elections, asked Levin how he’ll make sure to represent the 100,000 residents in the district who voted for Trump in 2016.

“I have to represent all 720,000 people in the district, and there’s a whole lot of things I can do as a member of Congress that has nothing to do with party,” Levin said. “Now of course, I’m going to vote my values, and I am a Democrat, and I’m also going to vote the concerns of my district and I’m going to emphasize our district.”

Levin noted that he’s already been working with both parties on important issues such as veterans and SONGS; the task force for the latter is being chaired by both a Democrat and a Republican.

“We ought to focus on those things that can bring us together, to build more bridges with one another,” he later added. “We’re all going to move forward as a country or move it backward as a country.”

Levin’s next town hall meeting is scheduled for March 23 in the Cardiff-by-the-Sea community in Encinitas, San Diego.

Full video of the town hall meeting 

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