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‘Let’s have that conversation’: Idaho lawmakers go to Oregon to discuss Greater Idaho

Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, left, discusses the Greater Idaho movement with Oregon Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, middle, and Matt McCaw, spokesman for the group leading the effort, on Thursday at the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City, Ore.  (Ryan Suppe/Idaho Statesman)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

Two Idaho lawmakers met with state and local officials Thursday in Oregon to discuss the Greater Idaho movement, which would trade a dozen or more Oregon counties to Idaho.

Reps. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, met in Baker City, Oregon, with an Oregon House member and Malheur County commissioner. While the attendees had little to say about what was discussed, the Thursday meeting was the first time lawmakers from each state met to talk about the long-shot proposal that would shift Oregon’s border westward.

Ehardt said she’s been “fascinated” by the idea, which could increase Idaho’s land and access to natural resources, such as timber and minerals. The Oregonians seeking to join Idaho are like-minded people who share Idaho values, Ehardt said, “especially those old-fashioned, traditional values.”

“Let’s have that conversation,” she said. “This is something that’s highly important to a lot of people. It makes sense to me, and I’m ready to continue to move forward with the conversation.”

Ehardt, Boyle sponsor Greater Idaho resolution

Since around 2018, a growing number of conservative eastern Oregonians have advocated for seceding from the Democrat-controlled state and joining heavily Republican Idaho.

In recent years, a more formalized group, Greater Idaho, has organized ballot initiatives in eastern Oregon counties. The group has targeted 17 eastern Oregon counties that could wholly or partially join Idaho, according to a map that divides roughly along the Cascade Range.

Both state legislatures and Congress would have to sign off on the move. Voters in 12 Oregon counties in recent years have approved ballot questions that direct county commissioners to discuss moving the border.

“They’d like us to talk about it,” said Oregon Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville. “And this is the first conversation in that step between the two states.”

Boyle and Ehardt this year sponsored a resolution to formalize talks with the Oregon Legislature to move the border. The Idaho House passed the joint resolution, but the Senate did not vote on it. A similar resolution stalled in Oregon.

The Oregon Democratic Party, which makes up the majority of the Legislature, “has not been willing to move our bill forward into committee, give us a hearing,” said Matt McCaw, spokesman for the Greater Idaho movement.

Oregon has higher minimum wage, no abortion ban

Many unanswered questions remain, such as how Oregonians would grapple with the vastly different Idaho policies that would govern economic and social issues.

Cannabis, for example, is illegal in Idaho, while it’s a lucrative industry in Oregon, including in border towns like Ontario, where Idahoans flock for pot. Idaho also recently banned abortion, a prohibition that would govern Oregonians seeking to move the border.

Asked about the disparity in minimum wages – $13.50 hourly in Oregon, compared to $7.25 per hour in Idaho – Ehardt downplayed a potential loss of income for Oregonians.

“McDonald’s is paying like $13, so no one’s paying minimum wage,” Ehardt said. “I say that, and somebody probably is, right? It’s hard to find workers, so you’re paying big money.”

In 2017, the latest available Idaho data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16,000 Idaho workers earned $7.25 hourly or less. Last year, about 1.2 million workers nationwide earned the federal minimum wage or less, representing less than 1% of hourly paid workers in most states, according to the Bureau. The data did not include Idaho, and the Idaho Department of Labor does not track minimum wage earners.

Ehardt traveled roughly 400 miles from Idaho Falls to attend the meeting in Baker City. The trip was self-funded, she said, and didn’t conflict with her legislative duties.

“No receipts to turn in, folks,” Ehardt said. “And it’s a long drive.”