An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama:

Your recognition of the importance of rural America is appreciated, but it appears shallow thus far in your presidency. The announcement of the establishment of the White House Rural Council has lofty goals, but actions speak louder than words. At this point your administration’s actions have done little to relieve the economic woes of rural communities, especially in Oregon.

The executive order establishing the Council lists 25 agencies and other federal government entities that will participate under the leadership of the Secretary of Agriculture to “better coordinate Federal programs and maximize the impacts of Federal investment to promote economic prosperity and quality of life….” My question is, whose quality of life and economic prosperity? The only mention of economic opportunity in the order pertains to “…energy development, outdoor recreation, and other conservation related activities.”

Here in Oregon, we have lived with this utopian concept of economic development for more than twenty years. If you were to ask folks who actually live in rural communities throughout Oregon, you would be informed overwhelmingly that the results of this new conservation economy are dismal at best. In fact, statistics show that the poverty rate in rural Oregon has increased from 12% in 1979 to 17.2% today.

Your administration has touted the billions of dollars that have been spent on pet projects throughout the country like broadband and renewable energy. Why not allow communities to identify projects that will best fit their needs locally? Better yet, in these financially strained times, let’s consider removing bureaucratic roadblocks to prosperity and allow the free market to determine the viability of industries, instead of the federal government investing billions of dollars picking the economic winners and losers.

Ethanol is one of the best examples of the federal government picking winners and losers. Corn growers definitely have benefited from ethanol subsidies, but livestock growers have seen the costs of their feedstuffs skyrocket.

There are also great examples of how public-private partnerships can be successful without federal government funding and bureaucracy. Just look at Powell, Wyoming, which successfully created a community based broadband network without any of the $7.2 billion being offered by the federal government to subsidize broadband development.

A critical and often forgotten factor in stimulating America’s rural economy is removing the burdensome regulations placed on communities and businesses throughout the country. Your administration has introduced a litany of rules that only continue to increase the bureaucratic burden on businesses of all sizes and has offered little to no relief or flexibility to businesses trying to meet often over-reaching regulations.

Durkee, Oregon is just one rural community caught in the cross hairs of EPA regulations. The town’s largest employer, Ash Grove Cement (116 employees), is facing possible closure despite investing $20 million in retrofits to control airborne mercury emissions. EPA has proposed new airborne emission standards for mercury that are below the natural background levels and beyond levels which technology can economically address in this area. Without an exception to the proposed rule, the business will have to shut down, eliminating a significant number of full-time family wage jobs. There are numerous other examples of egregious, overly restrictive regulations forced upon rural communities by a multitude of federal agencies which greatly diminish market opportunities for businesses.

Last, but most important to Oregon and to the stabilization of our rural economy, 53 percent of our land is owned by the federal government. The federal government has shifted its land management philosophy from sustainable active management of renewable natural resources to a passive management regimen that has cost our communities thousands of full-time living wage jobs and greatly increased the vulnerability of our forests to disease, pest infestations and devastating wildfires. The negative impacts of federal management decisions (or the lack thereof) on our renewable resources have been destructive to both the environment and rural communities.

Whether it is the livestock industry struggling to meet the impossible demands of federal grazing leases, or lumber mills trying to source enough timber to make up for the lost volume no longer coming from the federal forests — all of Oregon has been impacted. In fact, 31 out of 36 counties in Oregon receive funds from the federal welfare program for counties known as the Rural Secure Schools Act. These funds are provided to counties in a dismal attempt to offset the economic impact on county government (not individuals or businesses) due to the lack of management and bureaucratic entanglement of federal lands in Oregon. Local governments, business and citizens alike would prefer to be self-sufficient, but that is unlikely to happen unless the federal government liquidates its land holdings or begins to actively manage its natural resource assets.

While facing this recession, there is no better time for the federal government to stop frivolously spending money choosing economic winners and losers and to begin looking at how it could remove regulatory burdens that would free citizens and businesses to rethink free market opportunities and invest in their own future.

Daniel Kemmis wrote in This Sovereign Land: “…[P]eople who live and work, raise their families and build their communities, on a particular landscape cannot be and will never be persuaded by any amount of purely legal reasoning that people who have no such dependence on or knowledge of those landscapes should have an equal say in their governance.” Rural communities like Burns or Enterprise, Oregon would welcome the opportunity to host a listening session and tour for the White House Rural Council to reveal opportunities which would allow them to control their own destiny and once again flourish.

Improving Citizen Access to the Oregon Legislature

Are Oregon citizens able to engage with the legislature in a meaningful way? The flurry of bills and amendments can be overwhelming for a professional lobbyist, so it is easy to understand why a citizen or group of volunteer citizens want to throw up their hands.

 

Tracking a bill in the legislature would seem to be relatively easy with access to the internet. But, as many folks are finding out, it isn’t quite that easy. Once a hearing is scheduled for a bill, a person may have to commute hundreds of miles to Salem to testify. Written testimony can and should be provided on a bill, but actually being present seems to give more deference to an argument. Then, amendments often have been added to the bill that weren’t available on the web, and a citizen’s comments might no longer be pertinent. In fact, with cutoffs approaching, committee members often haven’t even seen amendments before they arrive at the hearing.

 

Many new citizen activist groups are recognizing that for them to be effective at the legislature, they must have someone at the Capitol on a daily basis monitoring activities. Even then, it is difficult to be effective. Small unofficial workgroups of lobbyists may be working on new language for bills that you may or may not be invited to participate in. This can result in amendments being introduced as “compromise language,” even though interested private citizens never saw the language.

 

The Oregon legislature could be more accessible to the average citizen. Here are few ideas that could make great strides in that direction:

 

  • Establish video conference areas around the state for citizens to provide testimony. This is currently being done by the Redistricting Committee, so it is possible. Facilities with this technology already exist at most college facilities throughout the state, so the infrastructure need would be limited.
  • Require all amendments to be posted electronically 24 hours before they can be considered in a work session, and the work session must open a public hearing for comments on those amendments.
  • The number of bills a legislator can introduce should be further limited to three, as well as those introduced on behalf of agencies. However, this has to be well thought-out. The last thing that should be encouraged is large omnibus bills with very general relating clauses.

 

These changes won’t eliminate the power of professional lobbyists, but they would begin to create a more accessible process for citizens. As legislators contemplate rules by which to conduct business at the beginning of each session, they not only should consider how to make the session most productive for the body, but also how to make their process more conducive to citizen participation.

 

Redistricting Decisions Must Respect Rural Reality

Redistricting decisions made in 2011 will have a significant impact on the future of all Oregonians. If history replays itself, Oregonians in rural areas again may become victims of poorly drawn political districts.

For ten years, rural “communities of interest” have been victims of gerrymandering. The small community of John Day is divided at the only traffic light in all of Grant County. Coastal communities are lumped with interior farmland and bedroom communities which share little to no economic commerce or even a common news source.

The opportunity to change these outcomes is before us. Oregon’s Legislative Redistricting Committee is conducting meetings and asking for input throughout the state. It is up to the citizens to participate and to inform the committee about what works best for their community.

It is imperative that the committee draw district lines that don’t divide common communities of interest. For rural Oregon, that means understanding where folks commonly go to shop, where they get their news, what schools their children attend, and what transportation corridors are used to access these communities. Districts should be drawn in geographically compact and contiguous areas which also recognize natural geographic boundaries.

Despite a seemingly bipartisan effort, the cards are stacked against legislators. The legislature has not successfully drawn districts in sixty years. Oregonians must pay attention and engage in redistricting discussions. If we dislike the outcomes, we must insist on an independent redistricting commission.


Karla Kay Edwards is Rural Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Selling Public Land Could Help Budget Woes

by Karla Kay Edwards

The federal debt limit of $14.29 trillion dollars is projected to be reached between April 15 and May 16 this year. Many argue that the ceiling must be raised or the U.S. will begin to default on debts owed. Others believe the U.S. must cut costs and begin to live within our means. But the U.S. government is now spending three dollars for every two it brings in, so if Congress succeeds in cutting the proposed $100 billion out of the budget, it might relieve federal borrowing for a single month.

Read more

Living with Wolves and No Right of Protection

Karla Kay EdwardsCascade Commentary

Living with Wolves and No Right of Protection

Download PDF
 

by Karla Kay Edwards

Imagine one day you were told that by law you no longer can lock your home. As you leave your house, two suspicious people are sitting on your front porch. So you get your kitchen broom and shoo them away. But they are still in front of your house on the sidewalk (legally not on your property). You call the police. They file a report and promise to monitor the situation. You eventually have to leave your home to run errands. When you come back, your computer that you use to run your business is gone. While you are confident that the folks you ran off your porch and who witnessed you leaving are the culprits, the police inform you that they found no fingerprints. Therefore, they aren’t sure if you simply misplaced your own computer.

Read more

Opportunity Knocks with Redistricting

Karla Kay Edwards
Cascade Commentary

Opportunity Knocks with Redistricting

by Karla Kay Edwards

Download Here

It is obvious from the voting results of Measures 66 and 67 (and of several other recent ballot measures) that constituents in most rural counties have different ideas about taxation and the role of government than do residents of counties with a larger urban population. Many are frustrated and concerned that the voices of rural communities always will fail to be heard.

Read more

The Diversity of Rural Oregon Communities

Karla Kay Edwards
Cascade Commentary

The Diversity of Rural Oregon Communities

by Karla Kay Edwards

The differences between Oregon’s rural and urban communities are obvious, but the diversity among rural communities often goes unrecognized. Describing rural communities involves considering both geographic and social characteristics. Geographically, Oregon is divided by the Coastal and the Cascade mountain ranges, running north and south, which create three physical regions: the coastal area, the Willamette Valley and Eastern Oregon. Each region includes vast tracts of federally owned land that have an impact on natural resources and economic drivers available to communities in each area. For example, in a recent economic study by Forest2Market, Inc., privately owned forestlands in Oregon contribute $382 per acre to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), versus federal forestlands’ contribution of just $67 per acre. Considering that 59% of Oregon forestlands are federally owned, federal forestland holdings have a significant impact on wealth creation and jobs in rural communities. Rural communities insufficient ability to generate wealth also hinders their ability to comply with state government mandates.

Read more

Where is Oregon among the 50 Bright Stars?

Christina Martin

To celebrate Constitution Day, Cascade Policy Institute is posting the results of the Goldwater Institute’s report comparing the strength of each state’s constitution to protect freedom and secure limited government. A strong constitution is vital to preserve freedom; however, alone it is not enough. Accordingly, the report also provides a supplemental assessment of each state’s political and judicial culture.

Where did Oregon rank? Comfortably in the middle, with a very low score for poor protections of property rights and a high score for free speech.  Read more about Oregon’s ranking in 50 Bright Stars: An Assessment of Each State’s Constitutional Commitment to Limited Government.

Oregon’s Little Carbon FootprintBy Todd Wynn

QuickPoint!Todd Wynn

Click the play button to hear the audio commentary

The threat of human-induced climate change is driving public policy towards attempting to reduce human emissions in the state. It is important to put Oregon’s “carbon footprint” into perspective in order to understand that state emission reduction policies make no economic or environmental sense.

Read more
1 2 3 4