Town Hall: Rep. Marion Berry speaks to voters at Viola City Hall. Berry took questions from members of the audience and spoke on a variety of subjects including the National Animal Identification System and biofuel. Photo/Price
Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) paid a visit to Viola City Hall April 18 for a town hall meeting where he answered questions from area residents on a variety of subjects.
Berry greeted the small crowd of approximately 25 people in the garage which the Viola Fire Department uses at Viola City Hall.
Earlier in the day, Berry had spoken to a crowd of approximately 35 at the Cimmaron Restaurant in Ash Flat, according to Fulton County Sheriff Walter Dillinger who attended the event along with County Judge Charles Willett, County Treasurer Larry Humphries and former state Rep. Boyd Higginbotham.
Ray Tuffar, a farmer from Viola, told Berry he thought the United States Department of Agriculture's National Animal Identification System will put small farmers out of business. The system, which the USDA says is a tool to track animals infected with diseases like mad cow or bird flu to their source, calls for farmers to pay for the tracking equipment for the cattle.
"If it goes on schedule, my way of life and that of others will be out of business," Tuffar said.
"If they haven't published the rule yet, then it's not regulation," Berry said. Berry added that he thinks such a system is "not workable."
"After they publish a rule, we have six months in Congress to vote for it to take place," Berry said. He said there has to be a better way to trace diseased animals than the proposed NAIS system.
According to the USDA Web site, the goal is for the NAIS to be operational by 2007 and then have full producer participation by 2009. The system is currently voluntary.
The Web site (www.usda.gov) says the plan is needed to help protect American animal agriculture from foreign domestic disease threats and would allow for the rapid tracing of animals in the event of a disease outbreak.
According to Tuffar, farmers would be required to pay for the tools to implement the system themselves, putting many small and family farmers out of business.
Berry said Highway 412 is the top transportation priority in the First Congressional District. The highway, which extends from Tennessee to Oklahoma, has been widened to a four-lane in many areas already.
"You don't have to drive it every day to see that it's needed," he said. The highway is already a four-lane around the Fayetteville area, and other finished improvements include the bypass around Mountain Home.
"We're not far from having a four-lane from Batesville to Ash Flat," he added.
Berry said having a four-lane in the area would make it more appealing to industry and business, which attendees at the meeting said is needed in the area.
Berry said eastern Arkansas is an example of industry coming into Arkansas. Several auto parts manufacturers, including Toyota, have moved into that part of the state. He said one thing that was key to getting business to that area was a trained workforce that hadn't been there before, which was accomplished through business leaders and educational institutions working together.
Berry said that even though industry is being outsourced in the area, it is being replaced by better jobs than before. Audience members told Berry that hasn't happened in north-central Arkansas; the area is generally ignored after its larger employers outsourced to Mexico. One man in attendance said there are no more jobs that will pay more than $6-$7 an hour left in the area.
"We have to start somewhere," Berry said, saying the four-lane highway is one thing the area needs to attract business.
Berry said after the meeting that he knew about the problem with the higher electric bills in the area. The problem originated from a shortage of coal reserves. He said the railroads have been a problem for the district because they have tight control over supplies to their advantage and have not been living up to their end of the bargain with electric suppliers.
Berry said hydroelectric power generation has also suffered because of the lack of rain over the last couple of years.
He said the railroad companies were using the current situation to their advantage. "We need more and better rail service," he said. "We can solve these problems and we can solve them together."
Berry told those attending a fence along the American-Mexican border would be appropriate in some places.
"We need to get control of our border. It's a national security issue," he said. "I don't see how we can absorb that many people and expect something good to happen."
Berry said that areas in the southwest U.S. with fences have seen a stem in the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border.
"The problem with changing legal status before gaining control of the borders is that Mexicans will try to get here anyway they can. I don't fault those people for wanting a better life," Berry said.
Berry said Israel and Switzerland are two examples of countries that control their borders well. He said Israel is surrounded by enemies and knows how to control its border well. He said that fences, which separate Israel from the West Bank Palestinian territories, play a major part of that.
He said Switzerland, which doesn't have a fence, controls its border well by knowing who is in the country. "It's pretty hard to hide in Switzerland," he said.
Berry also touched on oil prices, saying he backs the development of biofuel. He said with biofuel the price of gas would go down while profits for farmers would go up.
Biofuel is a fuel derived from biomass, which is made up of recently living organisms or other metabolic byproducts.
He said Congress would have to mandate fuel to have a certain certain percentage of biofuel so it would get to the consumer. He said it would take a while to get a system up and running.
Corn and soybean are two U.S. crops that could be used specifically for biofuel.
"Right now, with the current leadership in the Congress and White House, it wouldn't be well received. Get me a new president and a new Congress and we'll do it," Berry said.
"I don't see how it could be bad to have someone producing gas besides the oil companies," Berry said.
He said whenever Congress begins talking about doing something about rising gas prices the oil companies start to drop their prices, which leaves alternative fuel out.
Berry said he thought the Democrats could do a better job on Medicare if they were in control of Congress. He said he would like to see temporary relief provided for those who fall through the cracks of the new Medicare system.
He said he supported Sen. Hillary Clinton's idea for a national healthcare system which she proposed in the early 1994 while she was still first lady. The system, he said, would provide Americans with a card which would supply them with the same type of healthcare that government employees like himself receive.
"The system is currently set so the insurance company benefits," he said. "We know how to fix healthcare at a price people, government and business can afford."
Berry, who has diabetes, said he thinks he has a good insight into these problems because he served as a pharmacist from 1965-67. He is the third pharmacist to serve in Congress and the only one currently serving.
Berry said he thinks the Democrats could fix the national debt problem as well. He talked about the time Bill Clinton was in office and how government spending was cut back $600 million.
"We reduced the federal workforce by 20 percent and closed programs we didn't want to close," he said.
One of those programs was a program that provided money and food to the United Nations to send food to Third-World populations. Pope John Paul II met with Berry and other congressmen to try to convince them to keep the program. In the end, the program was cut.
"We can't keep borrowing money," Berry said. He said with the deficit as big as it is cutting spending won't fix it.
"One party is in charge of everything," Berry said, adding that he doesn't think the majority party understands regular people.
Berry is unopposed in the May primaries but will face Republican Cabot Mayor Mick D. "Stubby" Stumbaugh in the fall general election.