This is a guest opinion from Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Values Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.
Don’t have a fit, Idahoans. Oregon counties aren’t going to join Idaho any time soon. And keep in mind, we don’t have to take ‘em. So don’t worry about being overrun with ANTIFAs or BLM rioters from Portland, or tree-huggers from Eugene or identity-correct politicos from Salem.
Still, the voters in two Oregon counties last week said they are at least open to a discussion about joining Idaho.
One is Union County, of which La Grande is the county seat. It’s just one county West of the Oregon-Idaho border. Jefferson County, north of Bend, is further away from Idaho. Two other counties, Wallowa and Douglas, turned down similar proposals, but the margins weren’t great. (Oregonian, 11/4). Wallowa County’s vote was just under 50 percent.
Both counties approving the “Join Idaho” debate are rural. Union County has about 27,000 population, half of which is in La Grande, where Eastern Oregon University is located. Jefferson County, (pop. 25,000 est.) is in the central part of the state, with Madras the county seat. As with the others, its economy is heavily reliant on agricultural, although its proximity to nearby Bend has brought in more recreation and tourism.
Both counties are heavily Republican. On Nov. 3, Donald Trump won 60 percent in Jefferson County, and 69 percent in Union County. (Oregon Sec. of State, 2020.) Both counties are also on the “Eastern” side of the state, which leaves them disadvantaged on many points of Oregon liberal/Democratic politics, but more in tune with Idaho’s. That appears to be at least one consideration in the “Join Idaho” vote.
But before we welcome them, it’s still a long shot, with lots of considerations ahead. The Oregon “Join Idaho” group is planning its petition drive in 11 additional counties for 2021. These pulse-takings advisory votes are good as they’ll show whether the idea has any legs politically.
Were they to pass at the county level, subsequent formal efforts in both states’ legislatures would be needed, as well as in the US Congress. Republicans seem most likely in favor, in this era of contested presidential elections. Democrats, not so much.
The last time a state separated was in1863 during the Civil War when North-leaning West Virginia left tidewater, pro-South Virginia, which had already joined the Confederacy.
Then there’s the question as to what a newly-configured “Greater Idaho” would look like. The “Join Idaho” group envisions a large swath of Eastern and Southern Oregon to join Idaho, which would add some ocean-front counties and communities like Coos Bay, but avoids the Portland area, Eugene and Salem. The proposed maps show 22 Oregon Counties which constitute a good deal of the state’s agricultural and forest lands. The total population would be at least several hundred thousand new “Idaho” residents.
That, in turn, would affect Idaho’s current governmental structure, plus a wide range of Idaho state services, including funding, educational institutions. on and on. For example, would Eastern Oregon University become Idaho’s fifth four-year public university, and what’s the impact on Idaho universities, such as Idaho State University in Pocatello? Idaho isn’t exactly flush with cash for higher education; adding more institutions won’t likely be met with universal approval.
The same question could be asked of the Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, which already has an outreach center in Caldwell. How would TVCC be integrated into Idaho’s community college system, which includes the College of Southern Idaho?
And those are the easy questions. What about state public lands, federally-managed BLM land and national forests? Or taxes? Idaho is generally more conservative, more prudent on spending and generally more so on social issues.
At least the good folks in Union and Jefferson Counties have seen cows before.
A recent survey found a third of young people across America (33%) had never seen a cow. Think about that. Never seen a cow? One-third of young people in the country have never seen one. They must be talking about Portlandians. (Fox, 11/7).
An appreciation of rural America is a prevalent feature in the two counties. That’s surely a plus. and that’s what behind the “Join Idaho” movement. That’s led to public discussion of an idea that isn’t as bizarre as it may have once sounded.
America is changing in many ways and polarization across the nation is evident in many aspects of life. Urban folks often don’t know much about life in rural America. But at least Idaho young people can identify creatures which go Mooo…mooo.