Our colleagues at the Oregon Capital Bureau did a thorough job of reporting last week on the subtle realities of the state’s urban-rural divide.
The story was written in the context of the defeat of House Bill 2020, the signature climate change legislation backed by Oregon’s Democrat party, following protests by timbermen, truckers, farmers and ranchers.
For her part, Gov. Kate Brown is keenly aware that the divide exists, but takes exception to those who think that she and urban legislators don’t have rural Oregon’s best interests at heart.
“Is there an urban/rural divide? Absolutely,” Brown told the Capital Bureau. “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.”
But Brown was anything but subtle in expressing her views of the relationship between urban and rural Oregon.
The economy of Oregon underwent a huge change in the later decades of the last century, particularly in the greater Portland area. As rural Oregon’s mills have closed and timber production has declined, high tech and other information-based industries have pushed urban economies higher.
Urban Oregon once depended on receiving and processing the raw materials harvested in rural Oregon. From a public finance perspective, taxes and fees generated either directly or indirectly from those activities filled the state’s coffers.
But Brown says neither is the case anymore.
“That timeframe where urban Oregon was dependent on rural Oregon was a while ago,” Brown said. “I would say probably more than four decades ago. So, I don’t think we can go back to those times.”
In fact, Brown says urban Oregon is disproportionately financing state initiatives in housing, education and transportation that benefit rural Oregon.
While she didn’t say so directly, the implication is that rural Oregon needs to accept its status as the poor country cousin, the legislation demanded by urban elite and the programs the state had devised to address its problems. Noblesse oblige.
It’s true that urban Oregon’s economy is not dependent on rural Oregon’s timber and resources. But it is dependent on energy generated in rural Oregon and carried on transmission lines that cross Oregon farm fields. Its data is stored in vast server farms purposely situated in rural small towns. The affordable housing urban Oregonians demand is being built with timber harvested in rural forests. Its leisure time is spent on rural rivers, on rural trails and on rural mountains.
And three times a day urban Oregonians are dependent on rural farmers and ranchers — in and outside Oregon — for their daily bread.
Urban and rural Oregon do not stand on their own. They are interdependent with goods and services flowing in both directions. Urban Oregon can’t eat its greater political power, rural Oregon can’t exist without urban markets.
Oregon’s political leaders of all stripes would do well to keep that in mind.