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Capital Chatter: Eastern Oregon greets its governor

Democrat Kate Brown leaves blue state for trip into Republican Eastern Oregon

Among the Oregon legislators from east of the Cascades, none is a Democrat. Yet a large crowd turned out last month when Democratic Gov. Kate Brown came to Ontario, Ore.— roughly 400 road miles from the State Capitol in Salem, and only a few miles from the Idaho border.

Until this year, Ontario had not seen its governor since John Kitzhaber's first term, in the late 1990s, according to Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.

Kate Brown has been there twice this year. As Bentz said during his welcoming remarks, "If this keeps up, we'll soon start thinking we're part of Oregon, not Idaho."

Brown's first visit was in February after severe snowstorms damaged nearly 500 buildings. Bentz said that afterward, Brown followed through on her pledge to send help. That ranged from dispatching state staff to assist property owners in filing insurance claims, to providing money for disaster recovery.

"It looked like a tornado had gone through there," Brown said this week.

• Brown aide helps pave the way: Bentz also credits Brown's leadership for the 2017 Legislature's passage of a massive transportation-finance package, which is what brought her to Ontario for a second time. The Ontario Train Depot was her first stop on a five-city tour last month to conduct ceremonial "signings" of the transportation bill.

Smart and politically savvy, Bentz was a key negotiator for Republicans on the transportation package. When he and I talked this week, he made several points about Brown's role:

For her chief of staff, this year she wisely hired Nik Blosser, who is both politically aware and possesses the intellectual horsepower to handle complicated issues. Blosser grasped the technical and political importance of Bentz's proposed fixes to the state's low-carbon fuels standards; without those changes, Republicans would not support the transportation bill, yet environmentalists hated them. Brown backed Blosser when he met with environmental groups and urged them to drop their opposition.

And Brown did the behind-the-scenes "type of things you do as governor to make things happen that you want to happen when you are governor," Bentz said.

Arm-twisting, perhaps?

• An end to onions' traveling backwards: For Malheur County, which is one of the nation's prime onion-growing regions, the transportation package will mean development of a $26 million transload facility — moving onions off trucks onto rail cars. That will cut shipping costs, boosting the region's economy.

Currently, the onions are trucked more than 200 miles west to a rail-loading facility in Washington, and then the trains head east — through Ontario — to the East Coast.

Equally important, the transportation bill includes money for rural counties and small towns so they can fix their crumbling streets, roads and bridges.

It's no wonder that Bentz encouraged a large turnout to welcome Brown to Ontario.

• Promises kept: At her media availability this week, I asked Brown about last month's visit to Ontario. Her face lit up as she talked about the transload facility that will mean so much to onion growers: "It was just really great to be there and say, 'Yes, we did this, and Republicans and Democrats came together.' … We'd heard from the community and we were able to deliver what the community needed."

• Speaking of bipartisanship: Without a peep of opposition, the Oregon Senate this week confirmed dozens of Brown's appointments to state boards and commissions, along with conforming Fariborz Pakseresht as the new director of the state Department of Human Services. Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli moved approval of the nominees, saying they all were well-qualified.

• Kudos for firefighters: Legislators were back at the Oregon Capitol this week for three days of committee meetings. Amid Oregon's devastating wildfire season, they expressed appreciation for the firefighters.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and other legislators praised the Oregon Department of Forestry for its aggressive response to wildfires. They roundly criticized federal officials for a more cautious, restrained approach that enabled small fires to become megafires.

Johnson noted that the infamous Tillamook Burn, which included four big fires over roughly 20 years, burned 754,000 acres. By the time Oregon's current wildfire season ends, nearly as many acres might have burned in just one year.

"There is something more here than just the woods are dry and stressed from drought and insects," Johnson said. "I believe we have a failed federal timber policy."

• Coming to a ballot near you? Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for collecting signatures for possible referendums on two bills passed by the 2017 Legislature.

State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, said opponents of a health-insurance "sales tax" — her words" — are aggressively collecting signatures to force a January election. They're mostly using volunteers along with a few paid petition circulators to gather voters' signatures.

With no discussion, a legislative committee — four Democrats and two Republicans — on Wednesday approved the ballot title and explanation that will be used if that election occurs. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, was the lone dissenter.

Afterward, Parrish said the ballot title is confusing, and her group will challenge it before the Oregon Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Reps. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, and Bill Post, R-Keizer, are two of the chief petitioners seeking a 2018 election on Senate Bill 719 — the extreme risk protection order. It would allow family members or law enforcement to request a judge's order for confiscation of firearms from a person suffering a mental health crisis and who is at risk of suicide or harm to others.

Despite enthusiastic support from gun clubs and others, Post said, it will be tough for the all-volunteer effort to collect sufficient signatures by the deadline.

Dick Hughes has covered Oregon government since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.

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