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Eastern Oregon group readies bid to secede to Idaho

They just have to convince Oregon, Idaho and the United States Congress to let them do it.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — For the last month, nonprofit Citizens for Greater Idaho — on a mission to make Oregon's eastern counties part of Idaho — has been working diligently to gather support in preparation for Oregon’s upcoming legislative session in January.

Formerly known as Move Oregon’s Border, the group wants at least 11 eastern Oregon counties to secede and join Idaho. The group is led by its president Mike McCarter, who once lived in Portland but retired to the small community of La Pine outside of Bend.

Likewise, the group's spokesperson Matt McCaw lived in Newberg before moving to Powell Butte, a small community between Redmond and Prineville. Like McCarter, McCaw believes the “left-leaning” politics of western Oregon are vastly different from those of the Republican-voting communities east of the Cascades.

“Our movement is completely 100% about self-determination,” McCaw said. “We don't want to drag anybody into something they don't want. What we're trying to do is match up people with the government that they actually want, because that's where all the political tension comes from out here, is that people over here are very conservative."

Since 2019, the group has busied themselves with placing measures and advisory questions on ballots across eastern counties, asking Oregonians whether they would like community leaders to meet every so often to discuss seceding to Idaho. So far, the group has earned favorable votes in 11 eastern counties, with its latest victories coming out of Morrow and Wheeler counties.

“When we put this in front of voters, when we say, do you want to move the border as a solution? Do you want your elected leaders to look into that? They say yes, and they say yes in pretty overwhelming numbers over here in eastern Oregon,” McCaw said.

To achieve its goals, Greater Idaho also needs the support of Oregon, Idaho and the U.S. Congress — a far cry from the next goal of introducing a resolution in support of secession in the state Senate next month.

“Understand, our goal is to try to get a hearing established either in the House or the Senate, and that opens the door for future discussions,” McCarter said this month, adding that during Oregon’s last gubernatorial race, all three candidates discussed “the east-west divide.”

“So, it seems like the opportunity [is] there right now to try to find out and to inform, especially western Oregon legislators what is bothering everybody on the east side of the mountains. And that way you can see what can be done,” McCarter said. “Now, if they don't want to work with it, then let us go.”

Crook County is one of few eastern Oregon counties that has not voted whether to move its borders to Idaho. (Alanna Madden/Courthouse News)

Battle for Crook County

While discussions might be taking place in the state Senate regarding Greater Idaho’s proposed border change, not all eastern counties have joined the fray. Ironically, one eastern county the group hasn't gotten on the ballot yet is Crook County, where McCaw lives. Gilliam County is the other holdout.

“I worked on that from the very beginning to try to get a vote in Crook County,” McCarter said, explaining that after 10 initiative petitions, the county clerk rejected every question before finally approving one that had nothing to do with moving the border.

But Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely said the issue was that none of the group’s ballot questions had been legislative rather than administrative, as required by the Oregon Constitution. Seely said the county even hired an outside legal counsel to oversee the group’s ballot questions, which reached the same conclusion — as has Gilliam County.

When asked why other counties would allow an assumedly administrative question on their ballots, Seely said to ask them. The Morrow County City Council did not respond to a request for comment.

To understand administrative and legislative policy one should look to the courts according to Norman Williams, a law professor at Willamette University.

“The Supreme Court has basically said, well, a legislative act kind of sets out policy, whereas an administrative or executive act is just implementing a policy or procedure that’s already been established,” Williams said, noting the law doesn’t always work this way.

“I feel sympathy for all of the county commissioners, for all these counties, not just for the Greater Idaho ballot measures, but just in general,” Williams said. “There's enough gray area in this area of law for both sides to feel aggrieved about a decision going against them.”

Still, Williams believes Crook County should vote on the matter — and he’s not even a supporter.

“I don't think Crook County is doing anything nefarious here,” Williams said. “I think they're making a good faith attempt to resolve a difficult question. I just think they resolved it incorrectly and they should have allowed the measure to be placed on the ballot.”

As for bringing a resolution in the state Senate, Williams had some clarification on that too.

“The Greater Idaho could have the Legislature adopt a concurrent resolution, for instance, that says, we hereby support this,” Williams said, noting it would be nonbinding because it would be a concurrent resolution that the governor doesn’t sign. Instead, it would be an expression of sentiment by the Oregon Legislature.

“By the way, I have no doubt that that gets shot down overwhelmingly in the Oregon Legislature,” Williams said. “I have no doubt that there is an overwhelming supermajority in both the Oregon House and the Oregon Senate that will vote no on Greater Idaho. Certainly, the entire Democratic caucus will vote no. And I think there'll even be some Republicans from western Oregon that will say ‘No, I'm not going on record as giving away two thirds of the land mass of Oregon to Idaho.'"

And Williams doesn't believe secession is the way to handle political differences.

“To be very blunt, it sucks to be in a political minority in a state. But I don't think the solution to that political polarization is to just keep redrawing state borders so that you're always in a community of likeminded people,” he said. “The solution is for both sides to start talking and listening to one another.”

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