Malheur leaders hopeful as Speaker backs legislative slate

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

Tina Kotek climbed aboard the plane last summer to fly back to Portland, mulling what she had heard in two days of meetings in Malheur County.

Over those days, she met onion farmers and packers. She rode over potholes with the Vale city manager. She listened as an industrialist explained why he wished he’d never built a new plant in Oregon instead of Idaho.

“I left thinking: ‘What could we do? What would be helpful?’ said Kotek, the Portland Democrat who is Oregon’s House speaker.

She answered her own question last week , teaming up with state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, to announce ground-breaking legislation that would significantly boost efforts in Malheur County to attract new business and industry with more workers, more state money, and possibly relief from state regulations.

Local leaders reacted strongly to the proposal, appreciating Kotek’s support and what the legislation might do for one of the state’s most impoverished counties.

“It is incredible if it comes out as advertised,” said Lynn Findley, Vale city manager.

Kotek, elected in 2006 to serve her Portland district, hadn’t been to Malheur County for 20 years when she made the trek last June. She made up for lost time with one meeting after another, one driving tour after another.

She sat at Jolts and Juice in Ontario, listening to onion growers and packers. On one tour, she dropped in at Murakami Produce and drove by Fry Foods in Ontario, viewed Amalgamated Sugar Co. and a housing project in Nyssa, and then hopped across the river to see processing plants and farms on the Idaho side.

Her guides and those she spoke with left an impression, Kotek said.

“It’s a community of people very committed to making things better,” she said. “I see why they feel left behind – they’re at the other end of the state, in a different time zone. Not until you get out there do you realize how far way it is from Portland, Eugene.”

Bentz said Kotek recognized the determination of local people to build the economy.

“The community needs a lot of credit for the impression they made on the speaker,” Bentz said. “She left very much supportive of our position.”

Kotek impressed people as well.

“She was extremely interested and attentive,” said Findley, who said he deliberately drove her down “the roughest street in town” to make the point about transportation needs.