If you have a news tip send us an email at: tips@oregoncapitalinsider.com

Capital Chatter: Impasse exemplifies the rural-urban divide

Rural senators, mostly Republicans, face off against urban Democrats on a number of fronts.

The ongoing impasse between rural senators (mostly Republicans) and urban senators (Democrats) takes me back to an interview last year with state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio.

Sprenger was telling me about a conversation a number of years ago with a Democratic legislator from Portland. Sprenger was explaining why she advocated for limited use of dogs to hunt cougars. Urban voters — not rural Oregonians, she noted — had passed that statewide ban on such hunting.

Without dogs, successful cougar hunting is nearly impossible, Sprenger said. Meanwhile, cougar-livestock — and cougar-human — interactions were rising.

The Portland lawmaker told Sprenger, "You people …" should accept livestock predation as a cost of doing business.

Sprenger answered that jaw-dropping comment by asking: "What if I walked into a store in downtown Portland and threw everything on the floor? Would that be a cost of doing business?"

No, said the Portland lawmaker, that would be criminal.

So why was economic damage to a rural rancher considered acceptable but economic damage to an urban businessperson was not?

The Portland lawmaker was unaware of ranching life, assuming that fences could stop cougars — or coyotes — from preying on sheep.

"That's the rural-urban divide right there," Sprenger told me.

"Is there shame in the ignorance? No, the shame is painting rural Oregonians with a broad brush."

She added: "If you don't know, ask us. Don't assume I live in a certain way because of my ZIP Code."

That conversation is relevant because the demise of the 2019 Oregon Legislature might have occurred on June 5, when the Senate passed legislation outlawing coyote-hunting contests, SB 723 To echo Sprenger, "That's the rural-urban divide right there."

To urbanites, any hunting contest sounds horrible. Killing coyotes just for sport? To ranchers, coyote-hunting contests could be a means to curbing a livestock predator.

Senate Republicans saw SB 723 as a culture war. Democrats insisted it was not a culture war, and Republicans were wrong to interpret it that way. Now, Republican senators have cited the bill as one piece of evidence that Democrats broke their joint agreement ending the Republicans' previous walkout.

Having followed the bill since it was introduced with the backing of the Humane Society of the U.S., I did not view it as an attempt by Democrats to stick it to Republicans. But for a constituency that feels under attack, I can understand why it was taken that way.

House Bill 2020, the climate change legislation that supposedly caused the Republican senators to walk out again, is known to ruralites as "The Portland bill." Regardless of whether the moniker is deserved, it exemplifies the lack of common ground. Democrats say they bent over backwards to address rural concerns. Republicans see the urban areas as not having to sacrifice.

When I talked last summer with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, he said something that might have been prophetic: "If you don't live in an area, and you're not from rural Oregon, it's difficult to understand. That's just the way things are."

To his credit, Courtney is one legislator who has strived to work with rural lawmakers, often to the consternation of liberal lawmakers.

At the time, Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, told me, "Rural legislators, the needs aren't going to be the same as the urban ones."

He, too, had a prophetic comment that is now relative to HB 2020: "Policy is like a rubber band. If you go too far, it's going to snap."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.