Misplaced priorities

Artist's rendering of the $9 million fieldhouse and event center planned for Eastern Oregon University, paid for by the state of Oregon.

As the state legislature wound to a close, the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee — the group of legislators who control a big pot of money — wrote a bunch of checks.

Luckily for Eastern Oregon and District 57, Rep. Greg Smith — the longest serving Republican in the House — is on that committee. He was able to secure more than $7 million for projects in and relating to his district, everything from construction projects at Camp Umatilla, Oregon Food Bank projects in Eastern Oregon, the Center for Prevention Research and the Oregon Psychiatric Access Line program. That’s not to mention $9 million for an Eastern Oregon University facility outside his boundaries, which he had a part in securing.

Smith also helped direct $1 million to the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce, just days after that organization honored him with a newly-created “Nobel Laureate” award. It has the appearance of a back-scratching kind of relationship that could rub everyone else the wrong way.

Perhaps $1 million to build an office and larger conference room for the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce isn’t a complete waste of taxpayer money. But it’s hardly a priority when measured against the fact that the ill-equipped and dangerous Umatilla County Jail went unfunded, despite asking for the same dollars. If local voters had their choice on which project to invest in, our guess is the jail would win in a landslide.

There are many reasons, however, that the jail did not secure the funds. Maybe Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan and County Commissioner George Murdock hatched this plan too late. Maybe Rowan and Sen. Bill Hansell did not make an impact with testimony before the subcommittee. Maybe it’s simply because the committee’s raison d’etre is to make investments that create economic development, and mental health upgrades don’t directly fit the bill.

Rep. Greg Barreto, who represents Pendleton where the jail is located, took little to no ownership in the project. Voters deserve some blame then, too, for electing someone to represent them who has little ability or desire to assist.

Whew. That’s a lot of maybes and blame to go around. And we all feel it.

But we must acknowledge the facts. Many on these powerful committees have never visited Umatilla County, much less its overcrowded jail.

They rely on presentations and connections, and those outside District 57 must do better at both.

We’re not naive: Glad-handing and horse trading are part and parcel in politics. But we must try to make the process of funding capital projects fair and equal.

In the last five years, Pendleton’s convention center has seen two direct competitors pop up to the east and west. EOU in La Grande recently received $9 million from the state and EOTEC in Hermiston received roughly $7 million from the state and federal government. At the same time, Pendleton’s event space has been supported on the backs of local taxpayers and a tax on hotel stays.

That’s a clear example of government creating winners and losers on an unfair economic playing field.

Pendleton, and others municipalities in Eastern Oregon, deserve better from its state government and its representatives.

“I hope that when they get to the end of the session and there’s money laying around that they stick their hand up and ask for it. Because we need it,” said Pat Beard, director of the Pendleton convention center.

Rep. Smith is good at his job. He uses his connections in Salem to benefit his district. He has a well-earned advantage and he makes the most of it. He even threw in a brief pitch at the end of the capital committee hearing on behalf of the jail, which is in a neighboring district but would clearly benefit his constituents.

But advantages misused have plenty of negative consequences. Even Rep. Smith’s district is not served by the fact that the chamber of commerce is getting shiny new office space, yet mental health services continue to go unaddressed in Umatilla County.

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