Writings and observations

Barrett Rainey
Second Thoughts

From time to time, I’ve used this space to describe the unique nature of the several counties of Southwest Oregon. Politically, socially, economically – they don’t resemble any other section of the state. Now, because of some of our “differences,” folks here are starting to feel a lot of hurt. In several ways, that hurt is – and will be – self-inflicted. It’s already begun.

First, some background. Geographically, we’re isolated. Only Interstate 5 and Highway 101 on the coast run north and south through several counties. Some communities have no direct east/west access. Several are large but most land is owned by one level of government or another. Most communities are small. Timber cutting/processing is big. But – because of limited access to those government trees and given today’s sluggish economy worldwide – unemployment is high and the standard of living for many is pretty low. The economic importance of commercial fishing is not near what it used to be and likely won’t ever be again.

Population in several counties is older than typical. Several regional Vet’s Administration hospitals account for a lot of that. Retirement, too. Not much here to keep lots of young folks. So, with many older people on fixed incomes – and without the usual liberalism balance of youth – politics hereabouts is very conservative. From right-of-center to edge-of-earth. Seceding from Oregon is not uncommon talk in our neighborhood.

A lot or our county commissions, city councils, boards and the like often have people who’ve served 10-20-30 years or more. Because of that – and the fact our county-city populations are mostly small, the folks that serve and folks that elect often have close relationships. Which – in some ways – has added to our problems.

Example: a multi-county electric cooperative nearby had a member who had been on the board more than 40 years. The co-op board prided itself on almost never raising electric rates, regardless of increases in costs of power it bought. It just didn’t pay all the bills each month. The situation got so out-of-hand the federal agency that loaned the millions for all the system improvements over the years demanded a new repayment plan. Now! Or the Bonneville plug gets pulled! Rate increases – sizeable rate increases – hit the mailboxes and restructuring of the board of directors soon followed.

Another problem. Several counties have been receiving sizeable federal checks annually for years. The millions are supposed to support schools and other services because (a) the feds own so much land here and (b) the feds don’t pay taxes. So “in lieu” monies were paid under a special program – a program that’s now going away. Most everyone knew it would.

So – in the midst of our national economic troubles – these counties have been hit double. The hurting has begun. But only begun.

Our little burg is a one example of the problem, even though details here are better than most. Consider this: every dime of property tax raised here goes for county law enforcement. Every dime. All other county expenses come from various fees, the state and other sources. Like those federal timber payments. The ones ending. Our commissioners created a savings fund several years ago and it has helped. But when it’s gone soon – then what?

For the last few months, the sheriff and some leading Republicans in Josephine County have been pushing hard for a small tax increase dedicated entirely to law enforcement. No increase, the sheriff said, and he’d have to reduce the number of jail prisoners from 90 to 30 and fire 70 deputies and staff. He’d have three contract deputies to patrol an entire county. No court security – no detectives – fewer prosecutors. A few weeks ago, voters said “NO INCREASE” at the polls by a large margin. The pink slips have gone out. Property and other “minor” crime lawbreakers are getting tickets and a pass. Permit applications for concealed weapons permits are skyrocketing. What now, Josephine County?
Lane County is hurting. Jail and court operations curtailed. Dozens of prisoners turned loose. Lane D.A. Alex Gardner says “”It’ll really be the Wild West here” meaning more lawbreakers on the street. Lane, Jackson and Coos Counties are cutting in all areas.

Curry County planned to go to voters for a local sales tax in a few months and had already told the State of Oregon it would go broke without it. But remember that consumer-surprise delayed electric rate story? And the vote in Josephine County? Curry has no savings account. In a county with a population of about 25,000 or so, who’s gonna pay? And how much? And now this. NEWS FLASH: In the primary election a few weeks back, the two commissioners who proposed the local tax vote earlier this year – just proposed a vote – were defeated in their primaries this month. Defeated badly!

It is no overstatement to say the conservative nature of politics in SW Oregon, the isolation, the end of a long-standing federal support program and local dependence on what are now more limited natural resources have combined in something of a “perfect storm.” And all of that is playing out around a sizeable population of people who live here just for that isolation and who want to be “off the radar.” They are not highly sociable – not joiners – not part of the folks who do the volunteer and other tasks necessary to make a community close. And they hate taxes of any kind!

Though sprouts of green are showing up in the nation’s economy, we’re hurting here in SW Oregon. A unique set of circumstances – combined with an isolationist mind-set of far too many folks – is creating more problems than solutions. I don’t hear a lot of “let’s-get-our-shoulders-to-the wheel-and-get-back-on-the-road” talk. We’re seeing more folks at local food distribution centers even though things may be getting better in Seattle and Omaha and Cleveland. Too many people who should be in jail around here are not. And some of the laid-off people responsible for putting them there are leaving.

If none of this applies to conditions where you are, I’m happy for you. But these are the conditions in our neighborhood. And it’s gonna get worse.

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Oregon Rainey

rail build
A time-lapse image capture of construction of a new rail bridge across the Willamette. (Photo/capture from Tri-Met)

Last week, economic forecasts around the region showed a slight improvement – but just slight. In Idaho, some county jobless rates fall, but others rose.

Oregon state auditors say that school districts in the state have missed $40 million in energy cost savings. Washington State University researchers say they have come up with a new super battery. RealNetworks settled on a series of customer complaints with the state of Washington. Idaho legislators pushed for more potato sales access in Mexico.

The first fires of the season in Washington were reported. In Idaho, discussion flared about whether Idaho might be at risk of having to take more nuclear waste (the governor says not). Representative Doc Hastings had his say on a federal stormwater-logging rule. The Portland-Milwaukie light rail picked up some major federal financial support, while Metro worked on a new process on public engagement. A new transit center moved toward reality at Moscow.

All this and a lot more in this week’s Briefings. For more, write us at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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Most years, the job of precinct committee person (each major party has them) flies quietly under the radar. In Idaho (and some other places), not this year.

Across Idaho, battles for precinct committee positions have erupted, reflecting an ideological struggle inside the Republican Party.

One of the problems Idaho Democrats long have had is the lack, in many places, of precinct leaders. These are important, basic, building-block positions for party organization, important for local organizing and choosing local party leaders, and sometime filling vacancies for offices like state legislator. In Idaho, the Republican Party long has outshone the Democrats in getting many more of those spots filled. (Neither party fills them all.)

Ordinarily, only one person runs for nearly all precinct committee spots, but this year Republicans had an unusually large number of contests, in places around the state. They became intense enough that I spotted something I’ve not seen before, in any year – a campaign web site devoted to one precinct, aimed at one political party. (It is Kootenai County precinct 61; the web writers describe it as “A resource for the republican party members of precinct 61.”

In Twin Falls County, the Republican Liberty Caucus ran a slew of challenges to often-veteran precinct officers, and won almost a third of the seats. The mainstream party leaders expressed relief that the challengers hadn’t won a majority, but they’d better not count on the fermet to ease off soon. Many races were competitive; one was decided by a coin flip.

Another coin flip came in Ada County, home to a large pile of contests, where Roger Brown, a Ron Paul activist, unseated governor’s aide Roger Brown. In another race, a party nominee for state legislator lost a precinct office. One of the most prominent Paul backers in the county, former legislative candidate Lucas Baumbach, was defeated. But Paul backers won more than a third of the precinct seats in the Ada County party organization, enough to have impact.

Overall, the Paul forces fell short of the statewide precinct numbers they would have needed for their more ambitious projects, like the attempt to shift Idaho national convention votes to Paul from Mitt Romney. (That one never felt like much of a starter.) In Bannock County, a county meeting projected by one veteran county party official, Jim Johnston, as “a bloodbath”, turned out sedate.

But getting even a third of the votes in a county organization has its uses. Here’s an indication how.

Kootenai County Republicans earlier this year asked Texas congressional candidate Richard Mack to speak to the party’s Lincoln Day dinner. After the invitation was made, 14 precinct committee members sent a letter to the local party leadership objecting to Mack, saying his “support of the Republican Party and Republican Party candidates is inconsistent, intermittent and questionable.” The battle raged for a while and went public. Eventually, the Mack invitation held up, he spoke, and the event was held without incident. Not without trepidation on Mack’s part: He told reporters he had never felt as unwelcome as he had before coming to Coeur d’Alene.

It doesn’t take a majority to create a civil war. Just ask the South.

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