09 June 2023

Oregon and Greater Idaho

Since 2019, a separatist movement has been gaining steam in eastern Oregon.  The Greater Idaho movement aims to separate several eastern counties from Oregon and incorporate them into Idaho, thus shifting the state line hundreds of miles westward.

The movement reflects the deep cultural and political division within my state.  Oregon is generally seen as a blue state, but the reality is a bit more complicated.  The Portland metro area in the northwest corner of Oregon has about two million people, half the state's total population.  It, plus the two much smaller cities of Salem (the state capital) and Eugene, form a robust urban "blue" majority which outnumbers the population of the mostly-rural and mostly-"red" remainder of the state.  This "I-5 corridor" as it is sometimes called, after the freeway linking the three cities, maintains a solid Democratic dominance over state-wide politics.  In its attitudes on guns, religion, abortion, drugs, etc, most of rural Oregon is much like Idaho, but this is not reflected in the policies of the state government.  The Cascade mountains also divide the state into two distinct ecological and economic zones, the rainy heavily-forested west and the more arid, thinly-populated east.

So far, twelve eastern counties have voted in favor of joining Idaho or at least studying the idea, but by far from overwhelming majorities.  Last month, in Wallowa county in the northeastern corner of Oregon -- the most recent to vote -- the pro-Idaho side won by a mere eight votes.  These twelve counties have less than a tenth of the total state population but more than half the land area.

Some of the grievances are understandable.  State laws discourage rural easterners from shooting wolves which threaten their livestock and families.  Oregon's very liberal drug laws were passed state-wide despite being mostly rejected in the east.  Our state's overall gun-ownership rate is above the national average, but there is the constant risk of restrictions being imposed by legislators from urban areas who know nothing about the cultural and practical role of guns in rural America.

I have mixed feelings about the movement.  The Republican minority in the Oregon legislature is notorious for behavior which violates democratic norms, such as staging walk-outs to prevent a quorum for votes on legislation.  If there were fewer of them, such tactics would be less effective.  Rural areas are generally poorer than urban ones, and a drain on state finances.  On the other hand, the loss of the eastern counties would make Oregon practically a one-party state, something I'm not really comfortable with; any governing party needs credible opposition to keep it accountable, and the Democrats' stranglehold on the legislature and governorship is already leading them to drift out of touch with citizens on issues like crime.  Long-fixed state borders should not be changed except for very weighty reasons.  There are many areas of the US where similar changes might gain momentum, with the encouragement of a precedent here.  Some Greater Idaho advocates seek annexation of further counties in eastern Washington and even in northern California.  And Oregonians who yearn to live in Idaho do have the option of simply moving there.

Eastern Oregonians might find Greater Idaho less attractive once the practical implications start to sink in.  Idaho has a sales tax, which Oregon does not (though our state income tax is very high).  Idaho's minimum wage is barely half of Oregon's, so the lowest-paid workers might see incomes plummet.  The Oregon Health Plan provides free health coverage to the poorest residents; any easterners who depend on it would lose coverage, unless they could afford to get it via the ACA.

In fact, the border change is unlikely to happen.  Even if the eastern counties formally voted to join Idaho, it would need to be approved by the legislatures of both states and by the US Congress.  Republican members of Idaho's legislature have expressed some support for the idea, but it's hard to see our own legislature or Congress going for it.

Some of the grievances could be addressed if the state government were willing to be more open-minded and devolve some issues to the local level.  With a bit of thought, most urban residents surely realize that they have no serious insight into issues like control of predatory wildlife (aesthetic romanticization of creatures like wolves, by which they themselves never need fear being attacked, doesn't count).  And how easy it is to buy a gun in Wallowa county has no impact on anybody in Portland.  If the Greater Idaho movement forces some re-thinking and accommodation on such issues, it will end up being of benefit to Oregon after all.


Blogger NickM said...

Is there any precident for this? Does the creation of West Virginia count?

The way you describe Oregon sounds not dissimilar to Georgia. Half the population lives in the Atlanta Metro Area - that is commonly described as a "Northern City that just happens to be in the South". This causes a lot of tension. Personally I think Atlanta is weirder than that because there is nothing old there apart from Margaret Mitchell's house which looks really odd surrounded by steel and glass skyscrapers. A couple of Atlantans I have spoken to about this think it's a sort of a reaction to Sherman burning the city to the ground so Atlantans are like once a building gets to be 50 years old... Certainly, Sherman's march across Georgia has not been forgotten. And in many parts of the state not forgiven.

09 June, 2023 02:34  
Blogger NickM said...

Actually I have a problem with Idaho. Pretty much all of the States conjure some sort of vivid mental image but Idaho... Potato farms? That's it really. Is there anything else there?

09 June, 2023 02:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

West Virginia was somewhat analogous, but the circumstances were drastically different. When Virginia seceded from the US to preserve slavery, the state's Appalachian counties -- where slavery hardly existed in practice -- seceded from Virginia in order to remain part of the US. In effect, they separated in order to avoid becoming part of a treasonous effort to divide the nation. After the war, of course, West Virginia's statehood continued to be recognized, given the reason for it. But I can't think of another case like this since then, and it's been more than a century and a half, which by American standards is a long time. There are a lot of movements around the country to change state borders, but none of them have gotten as far as Greater Idaho.

The urban-rural divide works the same way in most US states. Illinois is blue because of Chicago, Colorado is bluish-purple because of Denver and a few other smaller cities, Nevada is turning blue because of Las Vegas, etc. Most deep-red states like Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama, and suchlike are red because they don't have liberal cities big enough to out-vote the conservative rural parts of the state. Texas is an exception -- it's heavily urban, but some cities such as Fort Worth are relatively conservative, and voting turnout among the huge Hispanic population is very low (partly due to Republican policies devised to keep it that way), and even so, the margin of Republican wins there keeps shrinking little by little.

09 June, 2023 02:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Idaho is also known for its popularity with white supremacists, many of whom migrate there, not that that's something the state wants to publicize. It's also unusual in that the name "Idaho" is apparently a fake Indian word made up by a politician in the 1860s. And, yes, there's the potato thing. Maybe readers who live there can tell me what I'm missing?

09 June, 2023 02:58  
Blogger Jimmy T said...

As a life long Oregonian, let me give a brief explanation to what is happening. First, there have always been a few (damn few) of us that cannot tolerate the Oregon government as constituted. Second,the saner citizens would never allow the miscontents to pull off such a stunt. Mainly because there is a bit of satisfaction to be had in denying them the opportunity to be abandoned to their own devices. And third, what kind of precedent does this set for other states???

09 June, 2023 07:29  
Blogger Lady M said...

Where does it stop?

09 June, 2023 17:02  
Anonymous spirilis said...

At least your nuts want to go their own way. Ours here in Ohio want to drive us out.

09 June, 2023 17:25  
Blogger Kwark said...

FWIW, I know where such a divide separates large counties in California - like Santa Barbara County - the hard reality is that the more populous coastal cities pay for the lion's share of the infrastructure, police, and fire protection in the rural interior. Carving out a new county to satisfy the noisy conservatives just doesn't pencil out - not if they want their current level of services anyway. Idaho might balk after they find out how much it's 'gunna cost to absorb the unhappy counties in Oregon.

Besides, I thought these folks (plus the unhappy counties in Eastern Washington and Northeastern California) wanted to create the great state of Jefferson? An idea the Republican Party loves - two more guaranteed Republican Senators.

09 June, 2023 18:28  
Anonymous Ten Bears said...

I keep telling these bozos if Idaho moves to Oregon that's the end of legal weed, nobody listens.

Historically this is rooted in the pre-WWII 'State of Jefferson' movement for several counties in South West Oregon and North West California to secede from said states and form a 51st state as a union (socialist) paradise. WWII came around, Oregon got firebombed, it fell to the wayside. I pretty ambivalent about: my grandparents were a part of it; the atmosphere does not recognize the boundaries of 'nation/states'

I do find it funny how they made a huge eastward jag around Bend ~ a hotbed of secessionism ...

09 June, 2023 22:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jimmy T: They don't seem to be so few in those particular counties. But no, they probably won't be allowed to pull it off, since the state legislature would need to approve it.

Lady M: Hopefully right here, before it even starts.

Spirilis: The numbers here are against them, so it's easier to try to secede.

Kwark: Almost everywhere in the country, rural counties are poorer and a burden on the state and federal budget. If this starts looking like a serious possibility, those Idaho Republicans will have to start looking at the economic implications. Adding these counties would increase Idaho's population by twenty percent, so whatever the impact, it wouldn't be small.

Part of the reason the easterners abandoned the "state of Jefferson" idea is that it would be less likely for Congress to approve it, unless Republicans controlled both houses, which doesn't look too likely any time soon. Democrats would not vote for a new state whose senators and electoral votes would be guaranteed Republican. Simply moving the Idaho-Oregon border doesn't create a new state and so doesn't arouse that particular objection.

Ten: They, and Idaho, probably wouldn't want Bend. All the secessionist counties are overwhelmingly Republican -- went for Trump by huge margins in 2020 -- while Deschutes county went for Biden by 53%, and Bend, being a city, is probably bluer than the county as a whole (Bend is half of Deschutes's population). A relatively large (100,000 vs 400,000 in the secessionist counties) and Democratic-leaning city is probably not something they want to deal with.

09 June, 2023 23:12  
Blogger NickM said...

The rural/urban split is really quite different in the UK. Essentially because we are much more densely populated. We also don't exactly have the "one big city in the area" thing. The closest big city to me is Manchester but I'm not too far away from Liverpool or indeed Shefield or even Birmingham. If I might go back to Georgia... There's only really one big city, Atlanta, in a state pretty much the size of England. I think, when I first went to the USA, that was a bigger culture shock than armed police or tipping.

Ten Bears. I be Josey Wales. I also made no peace with the bluecoats.

09 June, 2023 23:52  
Blogger Ten Bears said...

Bend is pretty purple, but not as blue as you might think. I've spent most of my life there (s'where my grandparents went to hide out when the Jefferson thing failed), it has long been all in on moving to Idaho. I think it has more to do the 'locals' ~ the surrounds of the basin: Redmond, Prineville, LaPine: the most vocal of the bunch lives down the street from my daughter ~ bad attitude about Bend than in those further east. Seriously, nobody in Burns or John Day, White City or Jacksonville, gives a fig about Bend, it's just another place

Was Idaho a gerrymander? Yes, like the Dakotas, we were still kissing the slavers' asses

Funny how it actually excludes most of the State of Jefferson ...

10 June, 2023 07:18  
Blogger Nan said...

Hi Infidel! Although personally I never stopped following your blog, somewhere along the way I stopped getting notifications. Anyway, I saw this post referenced on fairandunbalanced.com and definitely had to read it!

As I think you know, I'm an Oregonian and IMO, this secession thing is ridiculous! I'm of the opinion that people who want to live there should move! Of course the supporters all have their reasons why this isn't the way to go (at least for them), but it's OK to essentially "uproot" everyone else who might prefer to stay in Oregon.

Fortunately, the county I live in (Douglas) voted against this ridiculous measure ... albeit not by much ... so I think/hope we're "safe." However, in today's politics, one never knows.

Anyway, GREAT write-up! You definitely covered all the bases.

10 June, 2023 09:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM: European countries really have a very different situation. People here are sometimes amazed when I tell them the entire UK is almost exactly the same size as Oregon, but with sixty-eight million people compared to our four million. The situation in the US, with much of the population living in thinly-populated rural areas hundreds of miles from even a small city, couldn't exist there.

When I was a kid still living with the family in the San Francisco area, a relative from the UK who had come to visit asked if we could take him on a quick trip out to Utah because he was interested in the Mormons. He was startled when we told him that Salt Lake City was seven hundred miles away, and of course a drive would be much longer since the freeways don't run in straight lines across the desert.

Ten: I think the political shift in Bend is pretty recent. It's the fastest-growing city in Oregon, meaning lots of new people coming in from elsewhere. 2020 was the first time a Democrat carried Deschutes county in recent history.

Nan: Thanks! That's basically my feeling too -- people who prefer to live in Idaho should just move there. There's plenty of room, and it would be impossible to draw borders that would make everybody happy where they are. Even in these very red counties, the referenda on joining Idaho only barely passed, so if it happens, they'll be taking along a lot of people who don't want to go.

10 June, 2023 17:01  
Anonymous Annie said...

I had printed out this piece from the Brookings Institution a few months ago, finding it depressingly intriguing. As you note, the actualization of such efforts is highly unlikely, but their appearance in various parts of the country does deliver a grim message about Americans' growing unwillingness to put up with differences that once seemed less consequential.


11 June, 2023 14:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I would draw some comfort from the fact that even in these deep-red eastern Oregon counties, the secession referenda passed only by narrow margins. The spirit of the Exhausted Majority is everywhere, mitigating the extremism.

12 June, 2023 00:31  

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