Oregon is chafing under the title "U.S. Capitol of Hunger." No one in our state likes to think of Oregon as "ground zero" in the war on hunger, or as the "Appalachia of the West." Sadly, it is rural Oregon that is the true capitol of Oregon's hunger and poverty.
Like hunger, unemployment in Oregon's rural areas is higher than in urban areas, higher than in the Pacific Northwest and higher by a factor of 100 percent than in other areas in the nation. Both hunger and unemployment are the result of macro economic forces that are well beyond the capacity of local units of government and non-governmental organizations to address. The North American Free Trade Agreement, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Taxations have taken their toll. So too, has the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the elevation of environmental concerns to quasi-religious status.
These public policy decisions are made far from the impact areas in rural Oregon. People who make them rarely have to confront those who suffer the consequences. And recent revenue forecasts are driving still more policy changes likely to negatively impact rural Oregon, as revenue shortfalls threaten continued support for rural development initiatives, regional strategies, community solutions and the emphasis by Oregon economic and community development department on rural and distressed communities.
How, then, will rural Oregon solve the problems that plague local communities, sap our economic vitality and render rural Oregon the pauper - dependent of our body politic? I believe the proper mechanism to be creation of an "Office of Rural Policy."
Trouble comes to rural Oregon in two forms:
1. Lack of capacity
2. Lack of investment.
The Office of Rural Policy is well equipped to deal with both issues. Small communities need technical assistance to meet modern legal and operational standards. It's no secret that most of our small rural communities rely on volunteer city officials, and underpaid and part-time staff. To believe they have the capacity to meet complex and highly technical requirements designed to protect the public health and safety of their far more urban and populous neighbors is ludicrous. Nevertheless, when it comes to regulation, one size fits all.
Happily, many of the problems driven by rules designed to protect public health, safety and the environment, also feature mechanisms for flexibility and adaptation - if the local government can convince regulators that the outcome will meet or exceed the objective of regulations. That's where ORP can really shine.
By providing a clearinghouse for information to cities and towns, local government and special districts in rural areas, ORP can become a great venue for discussion and dissemination of information about adaptive strategies, flexibility within the law, and solutions that work for small, rural and remote communities.
By aggregating the demand for technical assistance, and sharing the products of compromise and conciliation, costs will decrease, projects will move forward, and obstacles will be removed.
ORP will be a two-way street for identifying conflicts between urban and rural values, and for providing solutions to tough policy questions that affect rural and urban areas differently. It will help bridge the urban-rural divide. ORP can also help battle the chronic problem of under-capitalization, lack of infrastructure and lack of investment in rural Oregon.
By identifying and eliminating regulatory barriers to development in rural Oregon, ORP could help to make investment much less risky, time consuming and expensive for potential investors.
By providing flexibility and helping to concentrate on outcome-based regulations, ORP could significantly improve the marketability and attractiveness of rural industrial and manufacturing sites, communities and business opportunities.
By helping to clear away ambiguities regulatory confusion and duplication of authority, ORP could begin to stimulate private sector investment in rural Oregon, advocate for public sector partnerships, and become a catalyst for improving employment, per-capital income and sustainability for rural communities.
Everyone wins under this scenario. Rural areas can reduce their rates of poverty and joblessness, and in turn, reduce their reliance on more prosperous areas for tax-supported services like education, health care and public safety services.
Sen. Ted Ferrioli , R-John Day, serves Senate District 30, representing Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Malheur, Sherman, Wasco and Wheeler counties.