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Experts say it might not be that bad: Cities and small towns take different political approaches to meeting their needs

PMG FILE PHOTO - Wilsonville's dual nature, with suburban living surrounded by rural landowners, presents challenges for legislators representing the community.

On a rainy Thursday in late June, Matt Gourley drove the 25 miles from Scio to Salem to stand in front of the Capitol to protest a sweeping environmental policy. Gourley said it was a "bill that's being forced down our throats that we don't really even understand."

Gourley's assertion ended up in a promotional video for Timber Unity, a political group formed to push back against lawmakers' attempts to limit the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

The group and its followers peg cap-and-trade as the next blow to a timber industry that's been in decline for decades. They see urban lawmakers as forcing progressive policies on them, rather than listening to the needs of their communities.

Urban lawmakers say that argument is a red herring: Industry is using such policies as a scapegoat as they automate their workplaces and ship jobs overseas, where labor is cheaper.

The debate over the policy seemed to deepen perceptions that there are two Oregons: metropolitan areas with dominating populations and rural areas, ranging from fisheries-based coastal towns to harvest-dependent communities in the east. Reality is more subtle, the differences less stark, based on interviews with state leaders, researchers and a review of state data.

Where the people are

Figuring out ways to blend the state's money — most of it comes from urban areas — to serve rural areas has always been a dilemma.

For instance, the state already uses a mix of local and state funds to have uniform per-pupil funding in schools throughout the state. But some schools might have only 20 students, making it impossible to pay for a building, staff and materials, said Mike Wiltfong, the state Education Department's director of school finance and school facilities. Wiltfong said $95 million per year in additional funds is dedicated to those rural schools.

The rural-urban divide shapes policies and debates in Salem. Urban lawmakers are astutely aware of the optics of praising rural communities and supporting bills that stimulate rural economies. Rural lawmakers, conversely, have found that railing about urban and progressive lawmakers and policies often is cheered back home.

"When legislation is designed for the Portland area it crushes communities from Bend to Ontario, to McMinnville and Grants Pass," the House Republican caucus wrote in a January news release.

Some of the ire about state policy has been aimed at Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat who has been involved in state politics since the early 1990s. She was singled out during the June timber protest, her likeness seen bobbing through the crowd in effigy on cardboard cutouts. Big speakers blared a catchy, if predictable, spin on Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" — replaced by "bad, bad Katie Brown."

"Is there an urban/rural divide? Absolutely," Brown told the Capital Bureau, a news partner of the Tribune. "But I would really push back and say it's a lot of bunk to say myself as an executive and legislative leadership don't care about rural Oregon."

Reactions to policies crafted in Salem among ruralites are mixed, and nonurban areas of the state are not a monolith — politically or socially.

"If we ask something about public opinion, like, 'Should schools have more funding?' There's always going to be a bigger difference between Democrats and Republicans, than between urban and rural," said John Horvick, director of client relations and political research at DHM Research in Portland. "Yes, one is red and one is blue, but there are a lot of Democrats in rural Oregon, and there are plenty of Republicans in urban areas. And partisanship is a much, much better predictor on almost every policy issue than geography."

Some say there's a lack of understanding when it comes to policymaking for rural Oregon.

"What they think they're doing to help the rural parts of the state doesn't help them," said Jim Geisinger, vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers and an Estacada resident. "We don't need more government programs. We don't need more handouts."

"It's just that we don't like somebody from outside telling us what we need to do, because they think they know better," said Steve Uffelman, the mayor of Prineville. "And that's just a slap in the face. And it's an insult."

Brown tours the state talking to local politicians and chambers of commerce and works to respond to their needs. When she was in Ontario, she was told affordable housing was the city's biggest issue.

In this year's legislative session, the Legislature funneled more money toward affordable housing.

"A disproportionate share, on a per capita basis, of our housing dollars goes into rural Oregon," Brown said.

She also unsuccessfully pushed an idea that would take hundreds of millions of dollars from the popular tax rebate known as the "kicker" and spend it on affordable housing in rural areas and for wildfire prevention work, bringing forestry jobs to rural communities.

Brown says she's baffled by the lack of Republican support for either proposal. But some representing rural communities say Democratic leaders are picking and choosing which rural issues to focus on, and they aren't stopping the bleeding.

Housing and broadband

Sen. Cliff Bentz, an Ontario Republican, agreed that affordable housing is an issue. But he said liberals force their progressive agenda on the entire state, rather than listening to what ruralites want. He opposed House Bill 2001, which undid longstanding laws barring multifamily housing throughout the bulk of Oregon's cities.

Uffelman, the Prineville mayor, echoed Bentz, saying the bill was an urban solution forced on his town of 10,000. "We're a classic example of one size does not fit all," Uffelman said. "When they try to ram down our throats their policy on urban planning, for example, it might be fine for Portland, but it isn't fine for us."

Bentz preferred a bill he pushed that failed, which would have rezoned 200 acres on Ontario's hilltops to two-acre lots where nice houses could be built.

"So-called affordable housing. We need it. That's true," he said. "But what we also need is people coming in and spending $400,000 or $500,000 on two-acre lots."

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said affordable housing is needed, but it means less after the passage of a transportation package, a clean fuel standard and a gross receipts tax.

"Those things don't mean a lot when your income has gone down to a third and you can hardly afford to feed your family anymore," she said.

Brown also pointed to a rural broadband bill that failed and didn't get Republican support. "I am totally and completely at a loss," Brown said. "Why would they specifically kill a proposal that invested in rural Oregon, and rural Oregon broadband?"

Brown said only Republicans could explain the move, but it could be politically calculated. "Certainly it adds fuel to the fire for them to say we're not investing in rural Oregon," she said.

Bentz and Cooper liked the policy, though Bentz said he wouldn't have supported it, had it gotten consideration in the Senate.

Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, sponsored a somewhat similar bill increasing a tax on telephone use to pay for 911 systems upgrades. Bentz said there wasn't an appetite to pass both. He liked the broadband bill better, but went with his party in supporting Findley's bill.

Findley, for his part, said that he disliked the broadband bill because the state still hasn't established how much broadband infrastructure the state needs. Findley said he voted against the bill because he felt the state hadn't firmly figured out how much money rural communities would need to set up broadband infrastructure.

"My biggest fear, or concern, was, it wasn't supported with facts," Findley said.

He encouraged the bill's chief sponsor to open the office, then "establish a need."

"Go to all the cities, and the counties, and say, 'What do you need, what is a viable number?'" Findley said, is what he wanted the state to do. "And then go secure the funding for that office, for the grant portion of the office at that point in time, not just to come up with a number that looks good, but is not definable or justifiable. That's why I voted 'no.'"

Brown said the way to improve rural economies is to invest in elements like broadband to ensure those communities thrive, rather than go back to peak logging days.

"Are we going to harvest at the levels that we did in the '70s? No, I just don't think that's going to happen," Brown said.

If the state's timber harvests increase, employment in timber could increase as well, said Lehner, the state economist. However, employment in timber likely will not reach 1970s levels, because of federal restrictions and mechanization.

Rural Oregon has never fully recovered from two national recessions in the early 1980s, which hit the state's timber industry particularly hard, Lehner said.

The recessions, which reduced demand for Oregon's timber and wood products, were then exacerbated by new federal regulations in the 1990s that significantly reduced the timber that could be logged on federal land.

The fallout from those major shifts and regulatory changes could explain the bitter reaction to the cap-and-trade effort. While the decline of timber certainly impacted Portland and the state's metro areas, rural economies suffered especially.

Wilsonville rep skeptical of urban-rural divide

According to Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, the suburban-rural demarcation in House District 26, which she represents and includes Wilsonville, is more of a blurred line.

Because even the more rural areas in the district, like Scholls and the outskirts of Sherwood, are close to the suburbs.

"A lot of our suburban communities really appreciate having access to rural recreation," Neron said. "Because of the nature of being so close to industry and community centers, our rural constituents often work in the towns nearby."

One issue at play in her district is the transformation of rural land into residential communities or industrial districts, which has been prevalent in cities like Wilsonville, Beaverton and Hillsboro.

"Now there are lots of neighborhoods in what was previously farmland and horse pasture and berry fields and forest," Neron said.

These decisions, however, are largely outside of the Legislature's control. Neron supports preserving rural farmland as much as possible, but also said the suburbanization of rural land in her district has generally been well planned.

"It's the identity of these communities and the more we can preserve that identity the better," she said. "I trust the process and the people working on it. Oregon has strong land-use laws and that has led to good planning."

Another aspect that rural residents are disproportionately impacted by, Neron said, is transportation. She has heard from constituents who don't have access to bus services nearby, and she would like to advance legislation that bolsters funding for transportation services to these areas.

"That would probably be one of the topics that both the suburban and the rural side of the line would want to have is how are we addressing our transportation issues responsibly with these growing communities," Neron said.

She supported the unsuccessful cap-and-trade legislation that was aimed at reducing carbon emissions in the state and was introduced at the recently completed legislative session.

Many loggers and truckers, who often live and work in rural areas, vociferously opposed the legislation. However, Neron liked that the bill emphasized assisting and retraining workers who would have been impacted.

"This bill was working on investing in appropriate infrastructure in a responsible way," she said.

But Neron believes addressing climate change in itself would benefit rural communities long-term.

"I see climate change impacting rural Oregon in the future in such an intense way that I would hope that they would also come on board to advocate for responsible measures that can protect us from climate change in the future," she said.

Neron also mentioned legislation passed earlier this year that provided $1.4 million of funding to the Future Farmers of America program, a youth organization that provides agricultural education. She was moved to see many members of the program on hand when the legislation passed the House.

"It was really powerful from my perspective, but I hope also from their perspective that they saw that their advocacy had really worked, that we were able to fund their programming," Neron said.

Overall, Neron said her rural constituents want most of the same things as her suburban constituents: affordable health care and housing, quality education and transportation access, among other things. And she thinks the supposed chasm between urban and rural communities is overblown.

"This rural-urban divide that is amplified in the media lately, whereas there is some truth to the different needs in different communities, I personally don't think we have as deep of a divide as is being painted, that we have more in common with each other than is different," Neron said.

Spokesman reporter Corey Buchanan contributed to this report.

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