EDITORIAL: Malheur County aid shouldn’t die in legislative gridlock

Those who live in rural parts of the country such as Malheur County in many regards want what urban dwellers want. They just don’t feel they are getting a fair chance to get jobs, new roads and bridges and other features of community strength.

That’s the apparent message buried in a new poll done by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey makes interesting reading for clues about what’s happening in the country, and carries meaning relevant to Malheur County – and to legislators in Salem.

Much is made of the “urban-rural divide,” as if there are bright lines around the country splitting us into the haves and have nots. In some ways, the divide is nonsense. Everyone wants a good family life. Everyone wants a decent job. Everyone wants to live in safety in a home they own.

But there is no disputing other differences. It takes a certain person to want to live in a Portland high-rise, pay hundreds a month just to park near work, and pay a day’s wages for a concert ticket. And then it takes a certain person to live an hour from the nearest grocer, to find solace in spaces with few to no people, to enjoy the deeply personal commitment to a small community.

The survey teases out one source of rural discontent: Fairness. Rural residents – 56 percent – say they believe the federal government cares more about urban residents than those in the country. Only a third think the feds treat urban and rural areas equally.

If a similar survey was done in Malheur County, the findings would be similar. And they would be amplified by a feeling that the state government as well favors urban over rural interests.

Gov. Kate Brown and others have tried to tackle that sense. The governor included a menu of options in her proposed budget to help rural Oregon. Key legislators, including House Speaker Tina Kotek, have been deliberate in saying they recognize the special challenges of rural life in Oregon.

But some of rural Oregon’s needs are getting shuffled off to the side again in the titantic battle over state money. State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, has masterfully kept alive hopes for state help with an industrial train depot in Malheur County. That hope breathes life only as long as debate over a transportation package continues.

Less attention has been paid recently to another key fix for Malheur County. This is legislation – House Bill 2012 – that Bentz and Kotek sponsored as a team to demonstrate state concern for our area. You may remember this legislation created a new economic agency that would help tweak state laws that impede development here. The legislation asked for a modest $10 million to start.

At this hour, that might as well be $10 billion. The bill is sidetracked in the legislative budget committee. There has been no sign of life since – no hearings, no progress.

In the scheme of billions in state spending at stake, the $10 million for Malheur County’s experiment is spare change. Oregon’s leaders, from the governor to the House speaker to the Senate president and minority leader, should not allow this proposal to die from neglect. The people of Malheur County – and indeed, probably much of rural Oregon – are watching to see if declarations of support for rural Oregon are matched with action. If they are not, the new survey may be right – that rural areas sometimes don’t get a fair shake in the face of bigger urban demands. –LZ