Votes in eastern Oregon to shift to Idaho deserve attention – on both side of the Cascades

The long-standing notion about the urban-rural divide isn’t immune to resolution if people will talk – and listen – to each other

November 22, 2021 5:30 am
Oregon cattle grazing

A grant to Sustainable Northwest will fund the first regenerative ranching program in the West. (David Zaitz/Special to Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The movement to shift big chunks of Oregon into Idaho got another convert earlier this month.

Harney County voters put their muscle behind the idea of cutting ties to Oregon and living under the Gem State, favoring the concept 63% to 37%.

The local ballot measure is like others passed around the state in the past year or so, requiring county commissioners to conduct meetings to discuss the idea.

That’s all they have to do – for now. Talk.

For some, the idea seems quirky.

The pitch is that rural Oregon would fare better under Idaho’s deep red political alignment, its lower taxes and its more freestyle approach to land-use planning.

The key promoter, Mike McCarter of La Pine, even suggests the rest of Oregon ought to be happy to see the rural counties go. After all, if Republican legislators from eastern Oregon are gone, the Oregon Legislature would no longer face the threat of senators stopping legislative work by bolting for their out-of-state hideouts.

The logistics of a border shift are monumental.

And that’s probably apparent to at least some voters in the eight counties toying with the Idaho move.

But it would be a mistake for the Democrat-leaning west side of Oregon to dismiss these votes as just a stunt. And rural voters ought to use the attention they are getting to truly strike for something more useful than a new state map.

At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss the votes as “those people” in eastern Oregon.

Among the counties are Harney, Baker, Malheur, Union, Grant, Lake – the entire southeast bloc of Oregon. Add in Jefferson County, north of Bend, and Sherman County, the wheat-growing territory that has less than 2,000 men, women and children.

(Douglas and Wallowa county voters have rejected the Idaho idea.)

By pure geography, the eight counties represent a significant portion of Oregon. Looking at a state map with those counties, it would seem a mutiny is at hand. And more counties are likely to consider similar ballot measures in next May’s primary election.

But geography is deceptive.

Population counts.

The total population from those eight counties is about 124,000. Multnomah County, in contrast, has 830,000 people.

What’s clear from those votes is that thousands of Oregonians are utterly frustrated with governance in the state.

That’s not a new development. At the state’s founding, there was an effort to split Oregon into two states – one west of the Cascades, and one to the east.

More recent talk of the urban-rural divide has produced reams of scholarly papers, endless speeches, and a certain amount of handwringing.

And as is often the case in arguments, the two sides are not talking with each other. They are talking past each other. The volume of the disagreement seems more vital than understanding.

There is blame on both sides of the mountains.

Too many people on the west side, for instance, consider cosmopolitan Bend to be “eastern Oregon.” They have never driven across the Great Basin desert country that makes up so much of Harney and Lake counties. They have never talked to a real rancher, taking their image of cowboys from rodeos in St. Paul or Canby.

Too many people on the west side consider what’s good for them is good for Oregon. The sense is that public policies shaped to serve problems in Portland or Eugene are applicable to Pendleton or Baker City or John Day.

there is more getting along than might be apparent from the red meat rhetoric.

And those on the east side are too quick to complain they’re being mistreated. That’s been true during the pandemic, when school superintendents, county commissioners and city councilors have bristled at being told their businesses have to close or that children have to wear masks in school.

They scoff at “do good” legislation that might make sense in downtown Beaverton but seems pointless in Burns. One such political poker is the latest requirements regarding gun safety, that guns be locked up when not in use. For rural residents whose kids grow up learning to shoot before they learn to ride a bike, the rules seem oppressive.

But there have been glimmers of cross-range cooperation that often get overlooked in these debates. Malheur County, for instance, got special dispensation from the Oregon Legislature – controlled by those westside Democrats – to allow homes to go up on negligible farmland.

Tiny Eastern Oregon University in La Grande has done well with million-dollar allocations from the legislature for new buildings.

In truth, there is more getting along than might be apparent from the red meat rhetoric that gets most of the attention.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, represents a huge Senate district encompassing several of the “let’s move to Idaho” counties.

In a recent town hall, Findley tempered the conversation with a little reality.

“We talk about divisions a lot but when you take a look at all the bills, 90% are bipartisan,” he said.

For Findley and all his colleagues in the Legislature, the votes to change to an Idaho address ought to be judged for the intention. Voters in rural areas increasingly feel they are neglected or otherwise singled out for abusive government treatment.

Over the years, there have been modest efforts to patch up matters. Schools arranged exchanges, sending urban kids to go live on a ranch for a week while farm kids went to the city. Legislators have traded visits in the state, putting Democratic officials before small-town business folks while Republican legislators got a dose of traffic headaches in Portland.

Such an approach isn’t novel, but it’s needed more so now.

All Oregonians should be concerned and want to understand why so many of their fellow citizens are ready to cut up their Oregon driver’s license.

And those ready to trash their Oregon voter registration card should articulate their specific concerns and line out solutions. Pounding the table might rattle the dishes but it doesn’t bring the food any quicker.

As a state, we invite more dysfunction if people in eight counties are treated as curiosities. They have real grievances. They should be heard. But in turn, they need to listen as well.

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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.