Greater Idaho proposal that encompasses much of Oregon and parts of Northern California. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

VALE – A grassroots effort to move Malheur County and other Oregon counties into Idaho is gaining momentum.

The Malheur County Clerk’s Office has approved the circulation of a petition from the non-profit Greater Idaho to get a measure on the local ballot in November to support the realignment of boundaries.

The petition asks local voters to require the Malheur County Court to meet three times a year to discuss “how to promote the interest of Malheur County in any negotiations, regarding the relocation of the Oregon-Idaho border.”

The Greater Idaho organization consists of residents from across eastern, central and southern Oregon that want to slice off 18 counties and incorporate them into Idaho.

The local petition is a first step toward that goal, said Mike McCarter, president of Greater Idaho.

“We broke it down by counties because we want to see where the county courts are at and see what counties are in favor and not in favor of,” said McCarter. “It is not to succeed but basically, if enough people show it is something they want to see.”

The effort reflects the political urban-rural divide in Oregon. Many in rural areas of the state are frustrated with Salem regarding policies, regulations and laws they feel do not represent their values.

“It expresses dissatisfaction with the way the Oregon Legislature is making decisions and not taking input necessary from rural Oregon,” said McCarter.

McCarter, a retired La Pine resident, said Idaho politics and polices better represent rural Oregon principles and judgments.

“There is a concern with a lot of eastern Oregon counties that the governor is trying to set aside, through the Department of Forestry and fire controls mandates, what property owners have to do on their land,” said McCarter.

Greater Oregon’s chief petitioner in Malheur County, Patricia Johnson of Nyssa, said the state laws hurt local landowners.

“In Oregon, there is a lot of restrictions on the way you can use your own property. Living out in the rural county areas of Nyssa and being a landowner, we see that a lot,” said Johnson.

McCarter said some of the petitions in other counties ask voters to approve a measure to require county commissioners or county courts to form a board or committee to explore the subject.

If petitions like the one circulating in Malheur County prove successful, the border issue will be pushed to the Legislature for review. If the Legislature agreed, the border boundary change concept would require approval from The Congress.

McCarter said the second phase of the effort also includes a more elaborate plan to incorporate eight northern California counties into Idaho.

McCarter said there are now petitions circulating in 19 Oregon counties – including Baker, Harney, Coos, Grant and Wallowa. Portions of Wasco County east of the Deschutes River, plus the city of Maupin, and all of Jefferson County – except the Deschutes National Forest and Warm Springs Indian Reservation – are included in the proposed plan.

“And we haven’t done anything with Wasco (county) yet,” he said. “I’ve worked hard with the Lake County commissioners and that has not been successful because they want facts about PERS (the state’s Public Employee Retirement System), how to support hospitals and police,” said McCarter.

In a Greater Oregon fact sheet, the group addresses the PERS issue.

According to the fact sheet, if the border transition plan is approved the “county and local employees would keep their jobs. Some state employees might move to keep their jobs in Oregon/California, others would become employed by Idaho and maybe some would have to find new employment, since Idaho spends less on government.”

The fact sheet also explains that PERS “is not necessarily sustainable.”

“Negotiations between the legislatures of the two states would determine a fair way to treat employees affected by issues of transferring seniority and pension plans,” according to the fact sheet.

Malheur County Clerk Gail Trotter said Greater Oregon must collect 539 valid signatures to get its proposal on the November ballot or for a later election.

“They have two years to collect the signatures,” said Trotter.

The deadline to place the issue on the local November ballot is Aug. 5, said Trotter.

McCarter said the group’s effort seemed to pick up speed in February but the Covid outbreak stymied progress.

The epidemic, he said, made it “extremely hard, and safety-conscious-wise, difficult to collect signatures in the traditional way.”

So, McCarter’s group, sued the state in the U.S. District Court in Eugene recently to provide more time to collect signatures, he said.

“Basically, I am asking relief from the state statutes on the time and number of signatures required and also an extension on the time for about a month,” said McCarter.

Marissa Morrison Hyer, press secretary for Idaho Gov. Brad Little, said Little is aware of the effort.

“The governor did an interview on Fox News and said he understands why citizens would want to be part of Idaho due to the regulatory environment,” said Morrison Hyer.

Morrison Hyer said, though, there hasn’t “been much discussion about it in our office.”

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he, too, knows of the Greater Idaho movement but faced other legislative priorities recently.

“I’d rather figure out how to fix the state budget or return kids to school and keep businesses afloat,” said Findley.

McCarter, said he is optimistic the proposal carries potential.

“We knew when we got into it wouldn’t be a fast thing. It will take some work. Getting signatures is just the first step, then you have to get the vote out,” said McCarter.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said he, too, was aware of the effort.

“We haven’t been approached,” said Joyce.

 News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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