ONTARIO — It was a first, within anyone’s memory, that a speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives visited Malheur County and other eastern Oregon locations, but current Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, was in the county Wednesday and today visiting with local leaders and residents, and touring local industry.
Her visit was hosted by State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. Also, attending was Greg Smith, Malheur County Economic Development director, in his role as representative for District 57.
This morning, Kotek who represents House District 44, met with city and county leaders, business leaders and others for a question-and-answer session at the Clarion Inn in Ontario.
“Every community has challenges,” Kotek said in her opening remarks, including her North Portland district.
The real challenge is to get from challenges to solutions, Kotek said.
“I’m willing to work to make the entire state successful,” she said.
Much of the discussion focused on transportation. The No. 1 priority for the 2017 legislative session is the transportation package, with the goals of addressing maintenance needs for existing and additional infrastructure.
There will be a public meeting June 28 in Ontario to allow local residents to comment on transportation needs in the cities and county. People are encouraged to testify.
Bentz is co-chairman of the committee that is working on the transportation issues.
In reply to a question from Ontario Mayor Ron Verini, Kotek said she supported Portland residents voting to tax themselves on fuel to pay for roads but did not think it would hurt to get a statewide gas tax increase in the Legislature.
Kotek, in answer to a question from County Commissioner Larry Wilson, said it would be hard to get the distribution formula for gas tax changed between the state, counties and cities, and there could be danger in opening that up as there might be unintended consequences.
However, Kotek said she is willing to work on getting more money to regions in the ConnectOregon program and finding more permanent funding. ConnectOregon helps communities and private businesses fund transportation infrastructure improvements.
She also agreed with Ontario businessman Ralph Poole that the application process for ConnectOregon projects could be simplified for small business.
Whether the clean fuels bill, designed to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles, will increase the cost of fuels is not known yet, Kotek said.
The legislation passed after lengthy discussion and a Republican attempt to repeal it failed.
Kotek noted that there are arguments for and against the clean fuels bill that won’t work, and it will cause a significant price increase at the pump.
It is too early to know what the price impact will be , she said.
Smith said there are ongoing conversations to create a bimodal transportation complex in Malheur County that would facilitate shipping products from the area in more timely and efficient manner.
Grant Kitamura, of Murakami Produce in Ontario, said the local industry needed help with shipping. Being isolated means trouble getting trucks in and out of the area.
Harney County Clerk Derrin Robinson said hay producers were interested in the possibility of a bimodal facility in Malheur County as well.
As part of her tour, Kotek was going to get a look at the Juntura Cutoff Road, for which the Legislature provided funding for major improvements. Smith lauded Kotek’s and Bentz’s efforts in getting that funding approved.
After completing her tour in Malheur and Harney counties today, Kotek was also visiting Baker County.