Legislation will help Malheur County

Key state legislative leaders and agency directors convene in Gov. Kat Brown’s office recently to map out strategies to help Malheur County recover from storm damage.
(Submitted photo)

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

Malheur County would get state money and regulatory relief to boost local business and employment under legislation announced last week.

The legislation would:

  • Create a loan fund to help business and local government train workers, build roads and sewer lines, and support new businesses. The fund would start with $10 million.
  • Direct the state land-use agency to consider local requests to waive planning laws that stand in the way of new development.
  • Establish a new government agency run locally by a seven-member board. The board members would be nominated by the Malheur County Court and appointed by the governor, insuring local control.

The legislation – House Bill 2012 – results from the teamwork of a political odd couple. The sponsors are Portland Democrat Tina Kotek, powerful speaker of the Oregon House, and state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who represents one the most conservative regions of the state.

Kotek told the Enterprise she decided to announce the legislation last week as one antidote to the damaging winter storms that hit Malheur County.

“We needed to get it going because of the disasters that just happened out there,” Kotek said. “I want to make sure that the eastern side of the state knows that we’re committed to that part of the state.”

Bentz said the legislation would be a huge benefit for the area but warned that it has a long political road ahead. Amendments are inevitable and funding is uncertain, he said. Legislators are dealing with a $1.8 billiion budget gap that will force cuts in state spending, increases in taxes or a combination.

But Kotek’s support gives the legislation more life than otherwise might be the case. And in the Senate, state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day and who represents Malheur County, is ready to put his political muscle into the bill.

Ferrioli said that when the legislation reaches the state Senate, “my job will be to rally all our members to this strategy to help in the recovery and rebuilding process.”

The legislation establishes the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region, limited to territory within 15 miles of the Oregon-Idaho border. The cities of Ontario, Vale, and Nyssa are particularly identified as part of the region.

The intent is to make the area more competitive with Idaho, where less regulation and a lower minimum wage make it cheaper for business to operate there than in Oregon.

“This allows us to be competitive with Idaho,” Bentz told the Malheur Enterprise. “I told the speaker we are now having to comply with lots of regulations that exceed those 100 yards away in Idaho.”

A key provision is providing for regulatory relief, he said. Under the proposal, the regional board would identify land use laws governing worker training or economic development that put Malheur County at a “competitive disadvantage.” The regional board would flag such laws to the state Land Conservation and Development Department, which could waive them or propose legislation to do so.

Kotek said she learned during a visit to Malheur County last summer that it was easier and faster to build business and industry in Idaho.

“We heard that loud and clear – that economic development was being held back by the rules of Oregon,” Kotek said.

She said she hopes there won’t be hard political pushback on the idea of waivers.

“I will be asking people not to dig in their heels if they feel that this is somehow changing drastically what Oregon does,” Kotek said.

The land-use advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon recognizes the need in Malheur County and doesn’t oppose the concept of relieving the area from some land-use rules, according to Mary Kye McCurdy, policy director for 1000 Friends.

“It offers a good opportunity,” McCurdy said. “We think it’s great to look at these issues.”

The regional board would start life with a $10 million loan fund. That money would come from the sale of lottery bonds, not from the state general fund fueled by income taxes. The board could make up to 10 loans or grants at any one time. The money could go to local governments, colleges, businesses based or with most of their employees in the region, and to economic development organizations.

That money could be used to establish or expand local businesses that will increase employment, expand transportation routes, boost workforce training to fill local needs, or to connect power, water and sewer to “a regionally significant industrial site.”