Wolves and min wage: Oregon’s urban-rural divide deepens

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Oregon’s urban-rural divide has been a constant theme of my weekly updates during my three terms serving in the Senate. Both the 2015 and the current 2016 Legislative Assemblies have served to highlight that ever-increasing split. It will only continue to get worse over time.

Two contentious issues being debated in recent weeks illustrate the extent of the gulf.

Wolf Conservation and Management

Last November, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) voted to remove the Canadian gray wolf from the state’s endangered species list. My staff attended the OFWC meeting and entered the support that I and Rep. Gail Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls) have for the de-listing decision. The meeting’s attendees were evenly divided between pro-wolf activists from the Willamette Valley, where none of the wolves are actually located, and ranchers and elected representatives from the areas that wolves do inhabit.

The OFWC decision came days after it was reported that a calf was killed and eaten in Klamath County and two others were badly mauled in the first confirmed wolf attacks on livestock outside Northeast Oregon. Recently, an article was published in the Klamath Falls Herald and News, stating that a fifth radio-collared wolf is now located in Klamath County.

According to the article, the public has reported sightings of the wolf to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and its presence in the area was confirmed through an aerial helicopter survey. That article goes on to state that the wolf was scavenging on cow carcasses on private property, and that it has been spotted in the North Poe Valley and the Swan Lake Area.

Last week, a 500 pound heifer calf was severely mauled by that collared wolf that is now ranging directly behind our own Klamath County farm. The new wolf brings the total count of wolves in the region to seven, not counting their pups.

Pro-wolf environmental advocacy organizations had previously spoken out against House Bill 3515 during the 2015 session. The stridently claimed that only ODFW scientists had the expertise to make the delisting determination and must be allowed to make the decision based on the best available science. However, when the OFWC made their science based decision they were sued by some of the same advocacy groups who demanded the ODFW scientists be allowed to make the delisting determination. .

House Bill 4040-A serves to ratify the OFWC’s decision to remove the gray wolf from the state list of endangered species. It would confirm the Legislative Assembly’s confidence that the ODFW scientists did their job based on the scientific criteria established in the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.

The first public hearing on HB 4040-A was held in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on February 4. Rep. Whitsett is a member of that committee. The bill passed out of that committee during a February 9 work session on an 8-1 vote, with Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Pendleton), Rep. Sal Esquivel (R-Medford), Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) and Rep. Whitsett joined by four Democrats in support. The bill then passed the House February 12 on a 33-23 bipartisan vote, with mostly Willamette Valley Democrats in opposition.

HB 4040-A was then referred to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. I am a member of that committee where a two and a half hour public hearing was held on that bill on February 16. It was the sole item on the agenda.

Environmental advocacy groups made a full-court press to oppose HB 4040-A. They’ve even encouraged their activists to call my office asking me to vote against it. The vast majority of the callers were from the Willamette Valley, where, once again, not a single wolf is currently living.

Often times, environmentalists make emotion-based appeals regarding this issue showing no regard to the very real effects that wolves have on the people who actually live in wolf-inhabited areas. Those appeals typically contain much misinformation, seemingly deliberately aimed at tugging at the heartstrings of people who may be less knowledgeable about the subject.

But the simple facts are that HB 4040-A honors the work done on the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for more than 15 years by a wide range of stakeholders. As expected, conservation groups immediately filed legal appeals to the OFWC’s decision.

In my opinion, the Plan’s details and buy-in from stakeholder groups are jeopardized when people who don’t get what they want can force ODFW into closed-door settlement talks. It is typical for environmental groups to use these kinds of tactics, which enable them to essentially hijack the public process and try to use the courts to advance their political agenda.

What’s worse, taxpayers must fund the legal defense of the agency’s decision, regardless of the merits of the appeal, or the lack thereof. Settlements too often result in the environmental advocate plaintiffs recovering their legal fees and court costs from the public.

To be clear, HB 4040-A does not remove any current protections for the wolves under the law. Despite the fearmongering from environmental groups to the contrary, it does not change the wolf plan or legalize the hunting or killing of wolves.

All things considered, HB 4040-A represents a reasonable approach to a difficult problem facing people in rural areas. The bill is certainly more moderate than a bill introduced by an Eastern Washington lawmaker, whose district has 11 of that state’s 13 wolf packs. That proposal calls for packs to be established in Western Washington, where there is presumably more political support for the creatures.

Minimum Wage Increase

Senate Bill 1532-A also will serve to accentuate Oregon’s urban-rural divide. This bill essentially creates three Oregons, with separate minimum wages based on geography.

Republican Senators begged, cajoled and used every parliamentary procedure in the book in our attempt to either stop the bill or make it less destructive to rural Oregon farms and businesses.  The final vote came following a marathon seven-hour Senate floor debate. SB 1532-A passed the Senate February 11 on a 16-12 mostly partisan vote, with Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) joining Republicans in opposition.

The bill then passed the House February 18 on a 32-26 vote after a similar long session, with Democrats John Lively (D-Springfield) and Caddie McKeown (D-Coos Bay) joining  all House Republicans in voting against it.

Under SB 1532-A, minimum wage workers in the Portland metropolitan area would see an increase from the current statewide $9.25 per hour to $9.75 July 1, 2016. The rate for those workers would then increase in graduated steps to $14.75 by June 30, 2023.

Counties defined as “non-urban,” which include Baker, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union Wallowa and Wheeler, as well as Crook, Klamath and Lake in the district that I represent, would be under a completely different set of wage rates. Minimum wage workers in those counties would see an increase from $9.25 per hour to $9.50 by July 1. Mandated minimum wage would then increase to $12.50 per hour in graduated steps by June 30, 2023.

Workers in all other areas of the state would see an increase to $9.75 per hour by July 1, with an increase in graduated steps to $13.50 by June 30, 2023.

Governor Brown appears eager to sign the bill into Oregon law.

The ultimate irony of this wage mandate is that Salem Democrats have made a habit, for the past several years, of claiming to be against income inequality. Their proposed solution, in this instance, is to institutionalize the exact same kind of inequality that they claim to be against.

There may be other problems associated with SB 1532-A.

Linn County has obtained a legal opinion stating that the provisions of the bill are tantamount to an unconstitutional unfunded mandate from the state. What’s worse, SB 1532-A may be in violation of Article I, Section 30 of the Oregon Constitution, which states quite simply that “no law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

The bill mandates that people must be paid different compensation for performing the same work. Consider how this bill would be received if it required different pay for different genders.

I understand that residents of the Portland area are feeling the crunch of rising housing prices. I do feel, however, that there is a growing recognition that it is due to decades of the same no-growth policies that have made it against the law to build houses or conduct industry or commerce on the vast majority of the land within Oregon.

Those policies have also been a key contributing factor to the poverty that has been crippling rural parts of the state. Unfortunately, instead of solving the root of the problem, Salem Democrats have chosen to double down on the same mentality and policies that caused it.

Moreover, the bill will certainly result in widespread reductions in hours worked, reductions in other benefits that are not mandated by state law, and outright termination of jobs. Increasing joblessness will not improve the plight of Oregonians living in poverty. It is the antithesis of social justice.

Rather than creating a more prosperous Oregon, SB 1532-A will serve to worsen our urban-rural divide, instead of creating a prosperous Oregon for everyone in it.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls