SALEM With hope and fanfare, the Office of Rural Policy was created in 2004 by executive order of Gov. Ted Kulongoski. It died last month with no fanfare and dashed hopes after the Legislature refused to fund it.
The one-man office, which cost about $200,000 a year, was established to help form policy and connect the dots across the state on rural issues. In particular, the governor said when he announced the office that he wanted to spotlight the “particular hardship rural communities are facing during the current economic downturn.”
All of Oregon now faces another downturn and rural officials and advocates feel this is exactly the wrong time to pull the plug on supporting rural areas, which have higher unemployment, lower incomes and higher poverty rates.
“The office was never fully funded or staffed,” says Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton. “So the director was doing everything on his own. The rural people thought [the office] was of great value, but the co-chairs of Ways and Means said they didn’t see any outcomes.” Nelson says that one important outcome that originated from the office was the focus on water issues in the 2007 session.
But Ways and Means Committee co-chair Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, says that in a year when a glum state revenue forecast had the Legislature scrambling to fund the basics, having an ombudsman wasn’t a priority over concrete services such as more state troopers or rural health programs. The office was killed without a hearing.
“I don’t know if we have met all the needs in rural Oregon,” Nolan says, “but I don’t think we’ve met all the needs in any pocket of the state.”
The demise of the office comes as funding for the Regional and Rural Investment Programs, administered by the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, “is on life support,” says Doris Penwell, an economic development consultant for the Association of Oregon Counties. At one time there was $25 million for the programs; they were given $2 million in the 2007 session.
“The needs and wants of rural Oregon are not high on the list,” says Laura Pryor, a retired Gilliam County judge who helped birth the rural office. “That is why the Office of Rural Policy was such a breath of hope. If the governor of this state meant what he said, he would have been its champion.” She added in a Feb. 25 email to the Eastern Oregon Rural Alliance: “This is a pitiful conclusion to a wonderful opportunity.”
Kulongoski spokesman Rem Nivens says Kulongoski is “very disappointed.” Nivens says the governor plans to seek funding during the 2009 Legislature to restart the office if there is a good revenue forecast.
The office’s outgoing director, Jim Azumano, leaves behind a report that outlines the work that needs to continue, including addressing the “one-size-fits-all” approach to lawmaking that isn’t practical for rural areas, and deteriorating infrastructure.
Ray Naff, a director with the governor’s economic revitalization team, says he will work with OECDD and regional members of his team to help pick up where the office left off. “Our job is to take Jim’s work and move it forward,” he says.
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