By Les Zaitz
Gov. Kate Brown hopes to give Oregon’s rural economy in places such as Malheur County a better chance of recovering with extra help from state government.
She is proposing new spending to develop local business, expand housing, and add new construction projects to create jobs. She is expanding lending sources which local communities can tap for their own projects.
The governor’s initiatives are outlined in her proposed state budget for 2017-2019. In her budget message, Brown noted that urban areas of Oregon have recovered well from the recession.
“That improvement has not been felt equally across the state,” Brown said. She said her budget “directs investments towards rural communities across the state.”
The proposal is the first step in a months-long process. Her budget includes both new income for the state and spending cuts.
Here are highlights of Brown’s proposals that affect rural Oregon:
Rural development initiative: $1 million to help develop new centers to help entrepreneurs launch and sustain businesses.
“Microbusinesses less than four years old are the greatest source of new, high wage jobs in Oregon,” according to Business Oregon’s budget statement. “Small business creation is even more impactful in rural communities where corporate recruitment activity is less common and jobs are at a premium.”
Nathan Buehler of Business Oregon, the state agency focused on business development, said pilot projects in other communities have worked well.
“Baker City is a great example as it’s the most far along of the centers getting started under the program,” he said.
That center already provides office space for four enterprises, offers high-speed internet and video conferencing, and hosts training sessions. The programs were designed by local leaders.
“This isn’t about a bunch of people from Salem or Portland telling rural communities what they should be doing,” Buehler said.
Rural strategies: Continued $11 million funding for projects related to economic development selected by regional teams.
Agriculture: Additional funding to support commodity commissions that promote Oregon agriculture products and funding for additional laboratory equipment to make Oregon products easier to get to market.
Brown’s budget, however, cuts funding for the state Agriculture Department that will end a predator control job and a job devoted to using biological – natural – controls for noxious weeds.
“Biological control has been successfully used to battle a number of invasive weeds throughout the state, including Eastern Oregon,” said Bruce Pokarney, communications director for the Agriculture Department. “Having a dedicated person in that effort has helped make it a success.”
In the Oregon Forestry Department, the governor proposes using state money to continue expanding private rangeland protection associations. They act as trained volunteer fire departments on private ground, and have proven particularly vital in southeast Oregon to help battle and check range fires.
“This continues to effort in capacity building,” said Ron Graham, deputy chief of Forestry’s Fire Protection Division.
State money provides for training, helps acquire firefighting equipment, and covers insurance for the associations. Graham said the state currently has 21 associations with 800 volunteers and 300 pieces of equipment.
Water: $32 million in bonds to fund water projects and feasibility studies, including expanded groundwater research.
The work will particularly affect the Harney County area, where groundwater supplies have become a critical issue for irrigators and conservationists.
Brown said in her budget message that her budget buys “water supply projects that will create construction jobs, but will also support current economic activity and potentially spur new economic activity.”
Children’s health insurance: $55 million for a program called Cover All Kids.
Brown’s budget proposes expanding health insurance to children who now “do not meet federal citizenship and immigration status requirements.” The expansion could be particularly important in Malheur County, where an estimated two out of five children live in poverty.
State officials say an estimated 12,000 children under age 19 would get better health care as a result. They say that child advocates believe the number would be significantly higher. The benefits for children are significant, the budget message said.
“They have fewer emergency room visits, have improved social and emotional functioning, do better in school, miss fewer school days, and are more likely to graduate school and go to college,” the budget document said.
Michelle McClellan, senior communications manager with the Oregon Health Authority, said children who would be covered often are from transient families and “fall through the cracks” of government help.
“This is a population that sometimes gets a little nervous in dealing with government,” McClellan said.
College: Increases funding for grants to needy college students, expected to provide help to an additional 5,000 students.
Housing: $300 million in bonding for first-time home buyers and $70 million in bonds to expand affordable housing.
The programs could particularly benefit Malheur County, which has limited available and affordable housing.
SELF-HELP FOR COMMUNITIES
Public works: $50 million for communities to use for sewer, water and other infrastructure work.
Schools upgrade: $160 million for seismic upgrades to school buildings.
Higher education: $350 million for universities and colleges for new buildings and equipment. Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario isn’t listed among the 11 community colleges getting funding for new buildings, but may share in $15 million set aside for campus safety improvements across the state.
Transportation: Brown didn’t propose new spending yet for highways and other transportation projects. She is working with legislators, including state Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario, to devise such a program that could provide money for Malheur County projects.
Kristen Grainger, the governor’s communications director, said Brown directed her staff to build a budget using an “equity lens” to be sure needs of rural areas, low income people and communities of color were met. She said the governor particularly wants to drive construction projects over the next two years.
The governor’s “goal in funding these infrastructure projects is a double win: to address needs related to drought and water conservation, forest restoration, transportation upgrades, higher education facilities, and affordable housing that will help regional economies – and put more Oregonians to work in those communities at good paying jobs,” said Grainger.