VALE – More than a dozen people gathered last week in the Malheur County Court chambers and delivered feedback regarding a proposed plan to move the county into Idaho.
The session was the sixth since county voters approved a ballot measure in 2021 that requires the court to discuss the idea three times a year. The county commissioners meet in extra sessions to follow the legal mandate.
At times there was lively discussion among those in attendance and representatives of the Greater Idaho movement, the group behind the effort to expand Idaho’s border.
Greater Idaho represents a merger between Citizens of Greater Idaho and Move Oregon’s Border, which originally spearheaded the succession movement.
The idea to move the border slowly gained momentum since it was introduced in 2020 and includes shifting at least 14 eastern Oregon counties into Idaho.
So far, voters in 12 counties in Oregon – Baker, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Gilliam, Union and Wheeler – approved ballot measures to compel county commissioners to hold meetings to discuss the concept.
Mike McCarter, president of Citizens for Greater Idaho and local representative Bob Wheatley attended the meeting. McCarter joined the meeting via Zoom.
Also, on hand was Ontario resident Blu Fortner, who helped lead an effort to create a political action committee Called Greater Oregon.
A key goal of the political action committee is to repeal the requirement that the Malheur County Court meet three times a year on the issue. The group is currently gathering signatures to put a repeal of the ordinance on the county ballot.
The commissioners listened as Wheatley, Fortner, McCarter and local residents voiced opinions about the idea to move the border with some in support of it and others who were not so sure.
Wheatley said that the three-times a year meeting may have reached the “point of maximum effectiveness.”
Wheatley said it may be time for the issue to be pushed to “the legislatures in both Oregon and Idaho to set up a joint committee between the two and meet and discuss the issue.”
“If they decide that is as far as they want to go with it, so be it,” said Wheatley.
Fortner said he came to the meeting expecting the Greater Idaho movement to “present information on why that (moving the border) would even be financially a good idea.”
“The succession movement isn’t going to work and these meetings need to stop,” said Fortner.
Fortner said the “bigger picture is how do we bring our collective voices together and get more representation in Salem then we have.”
Wheatley said a lot of questions can only be answered by the Legislature.
“That’s why our purpose at the moment is to address Legislatures of both states,” he said.
Wheatley said the idea of moving the border has been presented to the Oregon Legislature but blamed politics for inaction there.
“It is the same issue we face every day as members of eastern Oregon. The legislature in Oregon is dominated by the Democratic Party and they have their own agenda and, in most cases, doesn’t align with the way of life in eastern Oregon,” said Wheatley.
He said an “ongoing dialogue” is happening with legislators.
“More people are becoming open to at least talking to us and looking at the issue. I don’t know if it will ever get up to a vote but that is what we are working on and where we feel the energy should be spent,” he said.
Wheatley said the majority of people in 12 counties want the border issue addressed.
Fortner, though, disagreed.
“Did we vote to talk about it three times a year? Has a consensus been reached? Your website says we voted to join Idaho. You are not being honest,” said Fortner.
The Greater Idaho movement website does report that “in the last two years, many Oregon counties have voted in favor of moving the state line.”
Wheatley said he spoke to many people who signed a petition to place the three-times-a-year meetings on the ballot in Malheur County who want the border moved.
“That I can tell you is the truth. The majority in that (2021) election voted for this, these meetings and moving the border,” said Wheatley.
Wheatley said so far Fortner’s group “won’t talk to us.”
“Of course, because you are dishonestly trying to represent the majority here,” said Fortner.
McCarter said out of the 12 counties that voted “on this issue, two of those counties, Sherman and Wheeler, had that statement, “would you like your county to be a county in Idaho.”
“And they voted in favor, almost 60 percent for it,” said McCarter.
The group, McCarter said, never intended to “force anything on anybody.”
“This is moving forward and we are not going to stop talking about it. We are asking the state legislatures to pick this up and start talking about it,” he said.
McCarter said his group is “trying to improve what is going on in eastern Oregon.”
He said a gulf exists between the eastern and western portions of the state and pointed to Ballot Measure 114 as an example. That controversial measure made changes in Oregon law regarding gun ownership and the purchase of firearms and was narrowly passed by voters in 2022.
“It did not go through the Legislature. It came out of the people of Portland and they can pass anything they want because they have the votes to control the whole state and somehow we have to stop and change it,” he said.
Fortner asked McCarter if his group would be willing to “put forth a more honest ballot and ask if the people in the county are willing to join Idaho?”
McCarter said his group could not do that.
“The secretary of state doesn’t allow an initiative to ask a poll question like that,” said McCarter.
Fortner asked McCarter if his group would be willing to work with his Greater Oregon political action committee when “all of this doesn’t pan out.”
“We are not against anybody. But right now, no one has approached us to say, Ok, what are we going to do, how are we going to do it,” said McCarter.
Fortner said Greater Oregon is “willing to set up a meeting to discuss ideas that are more realistic.”
Vale resident Brent Grasty said he appreciated that Greater Idaho emphasized the idea to move the border was centered around a discussion.
“But the focus on separating ourselves from the state of Oregon, that just rubs a lot of Oregonians the wrong way,” he said.
Grasty said the way forward should focus on questions regarding a border move that can be studied by legislators and residents.
“I am just struggling with choosing, in my mind, to separate ourselves from the state and run away from the problem instead of stepping up and working together,” he said.
McCarter said Greater Idaho isn’t in a position to develop a list of questions.
“If Greater Oregon came out with answers to questions, such as PERS (the Oregon Public Retirement System), school funding, taxes, licensing, things like that, that would be a lie. We have no control over that. It is not Greater Idaho that decides those numbers,” he said.
County resident Pat Barfield said the focus on “dividing property lines to suit our political representation or be given sufficient representation for our ideas in eastern Oregon is the wrong direction to proceed.”
“Our county is divided enough as it is,” he said.
Ontario resident Linda Simmons said the border move idea is political.
“This has become a clear political issue between Republicans and Democrats. I don’t want this to become more political than what is reasonable and I want answers and I think it is wonderful we are talking about it,” said Simmons.
Ontario resident Linda Feeley agreed.
“I agree we need to talk to the Legislature but we need to understand that people on the other side of the state have different problems and there are more of them and we need to understand their problems too,” she said.
County farmer Marlyn Skeen said she and her husband love Oregon but doing business in the state in the agriculture industry is difficult.
“Here is what I see in Idaho, as a farmer. In Idaho they do not require overtime for ag workers. In Idaho, they don’t charge an extra 50 cents for a gallon of gas or diesel for our farm. Oregon has the highest death tax in the nation,” she said.
She said she just wants eastern Oregonians to have voice on the other side of the state.
Local resident Lucy Hutchens said what must change is the type political representation as eastern Oregonians looks for legislators who know how to compromise.
“So, the minority party has to get people who don’t go into the situation expecting not to compromise,” she said.
Jim Mendiola, county commissioner, said he thought most people, when they view the border issue, are “closer together than we are far apart.”
He said the chances of a border move were unlikely.
“I hate to be the guy is who is peeing on the parade here but it is never going to happen. Idaho might let us in, but the United States government is not going to let it happen,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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