Commentary: Gauging government before we vote (May 4, 2022)

If we needed any proof that an urban-rural (liberal-conservative, ideological) divide truly exists in Oregon, last week’s announcement by the state Appeals Court that it was overturning a local jury’s decision in the “Timber Case” should qualify.

The fact that there even was an appeal is confirmation.

Of course, nobody – those who supported the verdict or those who didn’t – really expected the state to simply pay $1.1 billion to Linn and 12 other rural counties, and 151 local taxing districts who joined in accusing the state of shorting them on timber revenues they contended they were supposed to have been receiving over the past few decades.

The details are in our report on page 1, but the short version is this: Linn County and the others went to court in 2019 and members of a local jury found the state had failed to pay them what they deserved from revenues that should have been derived from some 700,000 acres of its forestlands, the vast majority of those given the state by the counties.

Of course, as is usually the case, there is more to the story. A lot of those lands were burned or logged-over when the state got them, but part of the deal, at least according to the counties, was that once they returned to viability, they were to be managed in a way that produced said revenues. Linn County jurors returned a $1.1 billion verdict on behalf of the counties.

Our point here is not that the Appeals Court overturned that verdict, because almost everyone involved pretty much figured that would happen.

Rather, it’s the thinking behind the decision. It’s simply a reflection of politics in Oregon, which for the last half-century has been increasingly dominated by an increasing progressive majority that is intensely urban-focused and seems to overlook or ignore the views and needs of the residents who live in the rest of the state, nine-tenths of its geography.

Certainly, there are other issues in forest management besides pure profit. Nobody, not even most people who cut trees for a living, supports wanton destruction of forests. There are certainly science and systems that govern when and how harvests should occur.

But in conceding to environmental interests, the state and the federal government have allowed forests to overgrow to the point that now we have historically massive fires breaking out almost yearly during the dry seasons. Oregon’s forests are not being managed. And if they were, should not the government adhere to its agreement to compensate the residents who live in and around those forests?

These are questions that should weigh on the minds of Oregonians, both urban and rural, as they fill out the ballots that arrived in the mail last week. This affects everyone.

So do a lot of other issues, in which state legislators have ignored rural concerns.

The number of counties that have voted to support Greater Idaho initiatives – eight at last count, with more in the wings – should constitute a heads-up for those in power, if they can get their heads out of their lattes.

Which brings up the May primary election. Frankly, after two years of COVID mandates by the state, which have raised all sorts of questions and created all sorts of problems, it’s become pretty obvious that a lot of people aren’t happy.

We’ve seen protests, we’ve seen political organizing, we’ve seen residents turning out for School Board and City Council meetings, waving flags on sidewalks, etc. Thought COVID has been painful, it’s been effective in slapping a lot of us alongside the head with some basic questions: Exactly what is the role of and limits of power for government in providing our needs, telling us what we can and can’t do, ensuring that we’re healthy (if not happy)? At what point should state mandates outweigh personal liberty and responsibility?

As Americans living in a privileged era of history, where things have been going pretty good, maybe we were getting a little complacent before COVID hit. We had Obamacare to meet our health needs, most of us had comfortable levels of housing, food, entertainment, etc.

Then we were faced with these questions, which are as old as our nation, and far beyond that.

Oregon has a lame-duck governor who appears determined to leave a legacy to the state that doesn’t include a lot of positives for rural residents, whom she appears to systematically ignore. She didn’t even bother traveling as far as Bend to debate opponents in what had been for decades a traditional face-off hosted by newspaper publishers, as a public service. She won only seven of 36 counties in 2018, but that was enough to give her four final years.

In addition to engineering the COVID shutdowns, she’s lately turned her attention to commuting the sentences of prisoners convicted as teens of very serious offenses, whom – in her mind – have proved themselves worthy of a second chance.

Is that what Oregon residents want? People on both sides of the aisle see this election as a moment of truth for Oregon.

The  Oregon Capital Chronicle, headed by longtime reporter and editor Les Zaitz, teamed up earlier this year with Rural Development Initiatives, an Oregon nonprofit sharply focused on helping to build and sustain rural areas of the state, and the Agora Journalism Center in Portland, part of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, held a series of listening sessions earlier this year to determine what state residents wanted to see in the governor’s race.

Zaitz is a resident of eastern Oregon, where he has owned and operated the Malheur Enterprise newspaper in Vale for six-plus years after a long career as an investigative reporter for the Oregonian. He also has founded a couple of online ventures aimed at reporting state political news.

Zaitz reported that the “rural-urban divide” was a common theme among respondents in the four sessions.

They cited lack of opportunity and help from the state government, and a governor and state leaders who will listen to them – “genuine engagement,” as Zaitz described it.

Zaitz’s report can be seen at /03/15/for-those-outside-oregons-urban-areas-the-urban-rural-issue-is-an-opportunity-for-next-governor.

Bottom line: Anyone who’s not happy with what’s been happening needs to vote, by May 17. Even if voters don’t get what they want, politicians involved in any election – particularly a close one, are definitely looking at what people think, even if they don’t come right out and say so. Voting tells them what you think.

In this edition of The New Era, readers will find profiles of candidates in two of the most competitive races, for state House seat 11 and for Congressional District 5, both new to Sweet Home residents as a result of last year’s redistricting (see pages 21-24).

Go ahead, let Oregon’s leadership – those in power after this election – know what you think.

Vote your conscience.