Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Reporters for consortium of local papers in Oregon explore the state's growing rural-urban divide

In June, Republican lawmakers fled the Oregon legislature and killed a climate-change bill. "The debate over the policy seemed to deepen perceptions that there are two Oregons – major metropolitan areas with dominating populations and rural areas, ranging from fisheries-based coastal towns to harvest-dependent communities in the east," Claire Withycombe and Aubrey Wieber report for the Oregon Capital Bureau. "But the reality is more subtle, the differences less stark, based on interviews with state leaders, researchers and a review of state data."

The Oregon Capital Bureau a consortium of several local and regional newspapers that aims to improve state government coverage. Les Zaitz, the award-winning editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise and former reporter for The Oregonian, leads the group.

Ky. Educational TV map via PBS Learning Media; click on it to enlarge
About 81 percent of Oregon's population lives in urban areas; that's close to the nationwide rural-urban ratio, but it reflects an urban boom in Oregon; 26 percent of its population was rural in 1980, Withycombe and Wieber report. And though the state doesn't track how much money is made and spent in urban vs. rural areas, it's clear that the urban hubs mostly fund statewide initiatives that benefit rural areas, like state highways and public education.

"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," Withycombe and Wieber report. "Rural lawmakers, conversely, have found railing about urban and progressive lawmakers and policies is often cheered back home."

Many rural residents think urban legislators are forcing liberal policies on them instead of listening to what their communities need; they fear the proposed-cap-and-trade legislation aimed at climate change will hurt the declining timber industry. "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," Withycombe and Wieber report.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, told the reporters that a disproportionate share of the state's housing funding goes to rural areas, and she doesn't understand why Republican legislators wouldn't support her proposal to spend money from a tax rebate on affordable rural housing and wildfire prevention.

Steve Uffelman, the mayor of Prineville, a Central Oregon town of about 10,000, said affordable housing policies pushed by urban lawmakers don't help rural areas. One bill would have allowed more multifamily housing, which could help in a city, but in rural areas, it would be more helpful to rezone some land for high-dollar single-family homes, he said.

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

It's important to note that rural areas of the state aren't monolithic, either politically or socially, and that reactions to state legislation are mixed in rural areas. "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," John Horvick, director of client relations and political research at DHM Research in Portland, told Withycombe and Wieber.

No comments: