EDITORIAL: Time to embrace Salem’s offer

Malheur County has an unprecedented opportunity to shake off economic doldrums with legislation announced last week. We need to be sure not to let this chance slip away.

House Bill 2012 would create a new agency with one core task: give the border area of Malheur County a fighting chance to compete more evenly with Idaho. The creation of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region would accomplish that with several features.

One is local control. The seven individuals who would serve on the new board would be picked by the Malheur County Court and then appointed by the governor. That means the local perspective will be welded into the structure.

The new region would get state money for a host of tasks. The legislation calls for $10 million to start. A handful of projects could chew that up in a hurry. The effort, of course, would get farther faster with more upfront money. Our region needs to convince the Legislature that even in tight budget times, investing more now means Malheur County down the road help state with increasing numbers here paying state income taxes.

But where the competitive opportunity really comes into play is in regulation. Business and industry leaders have long decried that governments across the river can move faster and with less burden to help companies build and open. Face it, business is bottom line driven. Any smart operator will go where costs are lowest and chances of profit are higher. Right now, that seems a key lure in Idaho.

In its current state, the legislation now would only open the door to change land use laws. The new regional agency could recommend to the state what laws need to be waived or modified. The intent would be to say that a particular land use restriction or zoning law needs to be tweaked for Malheur County’s benefit. The state has to consider, but isn’t required to approve, such tweaks.

That seems too weak. Assuming the new agency makes a legitimate case, the state ought to be required to accept it unless state officials can make an equally legitimate case that the waiver is troublesome. Malheur County officials would have to be restrained in what they asked for. Oregonians aren’t likely to tolerate wholesale repeals that scrap important land-use rules.

But land use laws are just one problem cited by business, industry, and economic development agencies. There doesn’t seem to be a provision to tweak other regulations, such as those governing construction, labor and water use. There should be robust discussion in the county and in Salem on whether the opportunity to change other regulations ought to be part of this landmark legislation.

What has brought Malheur County to this moment is the thoughtful approach of local business and government in making the case for special treatment. State Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario has been a tireless ambassador of that message. Clearly, that style was key to winning the powerful backing of House Speaker Tina Kotek.

Salem now is paying serious attention to the economic challenges in Malheur County. That we rank dead last in median incomes among Oregon counties is one stark statement of the need. Kotek and others get that. This legislation seems genuinely offered. It doesn’t appear to be a political pacifier to quiet eastern Oregon.

Yet much work remains in the months to turn legislation into reality. We will need to deploy the same thoughtful manner that won over Kotek with the rest of the legislators. The door is open to make the case. The time is now to make it with reason, facts, and a willingness to hear concerns about this novel approach to governance. — LZ