Last month, the Grant County Court held the first of three scheduled conversations about the idea of becoming part of Idaho. The conversations are required by a ballot measure passed two years ago with 62% of the vote. Some residents came to the meeting dressed in matching green T-shirts that read “Just Say No to Idaho.” We talk to Shelley Wyllie, who is one of the leaders of a movement members are calling Oregon Together, about why she thinks Grant County should remain a part of Oregon.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you on our last day in Grant County. Earlier this week, we talked to a local proponent of the Greater Idaho movement. That’s the name of the push among rural Oregonians to break away from Oregon and join their more conservative neighbors to the east. We start today with the opposite point of view. Shelley Wyllie is one of the members of a group now called Oregon Together that started in Grant County. As this name makes clear, they don’t want a big chunk of the beaver state to join the gem state. Shelley Wyllie, thanks very much for coming in.
Shelley Wyllie: Thank you for having me, Dave.
Miller: So I want to turn first to just the logistics here. It’s very hard for me to imagine that the state legislatures of Idaho and Oregon and the US Congress would actually vote to move the state lines. Anything is possible but it seems like a very long shot right now talking in, in 2023. So what’s at stake in this debate?
Wyllie: I think what’s at stake is the core issue of the people of Eastern Oregon feeling like their voices aren’t being heard and looking for solutions on how to let their voices be heard. And, the Greater Idaho movement has kind of descended in with a solution that has appealed to certain people. And I think they have not given much thought to the consequences of what that would mean for their families, their lifestyle in this part of Oregon and what Oregon actually provides for them.
Miller: So let’s start with that then. What do you think the Join Idaho proponents are not realizing what this would mean for their lives?
Wyllie: Right. That’s a great question, Dave. My husband and I, we’re sixth generation Oregonians. We have a deep investment in this state. We appreciate what is offered. And being part of an Oregonian, we have access to health care. The Oregon Health Plan offers health coverage to 30% of Oregonians who qualify. In Grant County, 35% of our residents qualify for the Oregon Health Plan.
Miller: And you’re saying that because of eligibility issues, that would change if people here overnight became Idahoans.
Wyllie: Absolutely, because Idaho doesn’t have a comparable program to that. And I think there would be surprises in our community that certain infrastructure things just disappear because the money and the funding isn’t there to provide health care access, good roads, investment in our education and our schools. Idaho has a very different infrastructure which is not as strong as Oregon’s.
Miller: Are you surprised that this movement has been able to secure support at the ballot box in 12 counties? It wasn’t exactly a ‘yes’ vote to leave Oregon, but it was a vote ‘yes,’ to encourage your county representatives to talk about leaving Oregon. So it was kind of a vote in favor of this idea. Did that number surprise you?
Wyllie: It absolutely did. But, I’d like to clarify something because exactly that. The measure was placed on our ballot in the spring of 2021. And traditionally primaries in the spring have lower voter turnout and there, the Greater Idaho movement is promoting that 62% of Grant County residents voted in favor of holding these discussions. That’s all it is, holding the discussions, not joining Idaho. But in reality, we had 5,422 eligible voters in May of 2021 and only 2,367 voted in that primary. And of those voters, 1,471 voted to discuss the move. So this means only slightly more than 25% of eligible voters approve the measure to hold the discussion. It’s not at that 62% rate.
Miller: Well, I mean, what you’re talking about is the realities of who showed up for a particular election.
Miller: So, in that 62% of people who voted, voted in favor of it. You’re saying it’s maybe not representative because it was an off-year election at a time when fewer people are voting, but that is when the vote happens.
Miller: But, you’re making a larger point that you don’t actually see that level of broad interest in leaving Oregon?
Wyllie: Well, to your point, Dave, I think because there are many obstacles, the Idaho legislature, the Oregon legislature in Congress having to chime in on this, that there are a lot of people out there who are just saying, oh, it’s never going to happen. So they’re not getting involved in the conversation. And that’s how the momentum with the Greater Idaho movement is picking up.
We need more people to speak up and talk to their local representatives and tell them they’re not for this idea. Our local representatives are hearing from the people who are for this idea. And of course, then they’re gonna have to respond to that in some way, this needs to be a two way discussion. We need to hear from both sides. And I would encourage people to really speak up.
Miller: Proponents can and do point to individual policies. Earlier this week we heard about the corporate activities tax that lawmakers passed a few years ago to increase K-12 funding. But it really seems like the larger, the more overarching point they’re making is that urban and rural Oregon have just become too far apart, politically and culturally. They’re too different to make sense together, that if it’s a marriage analogy that the couple, they’ve just grown apart. What’s your counter argument?
Wyllie: I don’t believe in that. We’re all people, we all have the same needs and we need to find commonality and we need to move towards collaboration. I mean, on the west side, I know they have housing issues, they need affordable housing. We need affordable housing here as well. There are a lot of issues that we have in common. We need our state legislators and our local representatives, the county courts, to begin to facilitate conversations of collaboration and let every voice be heard.
Miller: It’s not just that the more rural parts of Oregon are too different from the Willamette Valley, it’s that state leadership, the governor and Democratic lawmakers who control the legislature that they’re not truly paying attention to the needs and concerns of rural communities. First of all, do you agree with that? Do you feel ignored, to some extent, living here?
Wyllie: I do feel that Salem needs to listen more deeply and be more responsive to the minority in this conversation. I think they’re moving quickly and they’re not letting every voice be heard in the conversation.
Miller: What do you mean by that? Not letting every voice be heard?
Wyllie: Well, take a look at our current situation where we have people walking out of the legislative sessions. We need to sit down and reach across the aisle and actually have conversations with one another before jumping on our biases or jumping in, one side or the other. We need to take a look at the larger conversation, find where we have commonalities and make some concessions there.
Miller: But what happens when there are issues where it’s not clear, when they’re more binary, and it’s not clear where concessions or compromises can happen? And the bills that led to the Republican walkout–that is still ongoing–I think are probably pretty good examples of that. If we’re talking about Democratic priorities like protecting rights for trans people or access to abortions, it’s not immediately obvious. There is some tinkering around the edges where there might be room for negotiation or compromise, but these seem like pretty black and white issues.
To me, the question that keeps coming up here from the walkout and from this conversation about staying or leaving, is how much power do you think a minority political group should have? If you haven’t won majorities in the political bodies, the legislative bodies or the executive bodies, how much power should you have to derail the wishes of the majority?
Wyllie: Well, I think again that it gets back to that we’re not listening to one another. We need to really stop. I think there’s more commonality than we think. We’re just kind of jumping one way or the other. When you really start to sit down and dissect a conversation that’s at the core of it, I would be hard pressed to believe that both sides don’t want to take care of the individuals involved. It’s how we’re going to take care of the individuals involved with a particular issue and that’s where one side needs to listen more to the other. I don’t think derailing anything benefits the citizens of Oregon to create harm in the process. I think we need to have every voice heard with dignity and we need to have constructive conversations. We’re moving too quickly to solutions and not having enough conversations up front to actually write a bill that’s appropriate for all Oregonians.
Miller: Can I ask, if you don’t mind, how do you identify politically?
Wyllie: I would lean more probably towards a moderate to liberal side of things.
Miller: I can imagine someone saying, of course, you don’t want Oregon to become a part of Idaho because you’re not actually a member of the state’s political minority and you’re basically happy with the fact that Oregon is a blue state.
Wyllie: But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have family members that are not part of that political minority. And I’m having conversations with them. I’m listening to them, I’m trying to understand what their needs are and why they’re not being addressed and I am concerned about the conversation that’s going on right now.
Miller: What does it mean to you to be an Oregonian?
Wyllie: To be an Oregonian, I feel like we are really blessed to have this wonderful state, these great resources, this overall diversity, geographically, culturally and economically.
Miller: So for you, that diversity is a feature, not a bug?
Wyllie: It’s very important. I think. Yes.
Miller: How would you feel if tomorrow without moving, you became an Idahoan?
Wyllie: I would feel like I had not been part of the conversation and that decisions were being made without my involvement.
Miller: Shelley Wyllie, thanks very much for coming in.
Wyllie: Thank you.
Miller: Shelley Wyllie is a member of Oregon Together. It’s a group that came together in Grant County to argue that parts of Oregon should not join Idaho.
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