Aug. 24, 2019 — The eighth annual Oregon Coastal Caucus Economic Summit was held in Florence on Wednesday and Thursday this week. The event was attended by a wide cross section of people and brought hundreds of public officials, state agency representatives, academics, farmers, fisherman, vintners, brewers and entrepreneurs to town.
These vastly different points of view and wide range of personalities attended for the purpose of sharing information, techniques and strategies to improve the prosperity and well-being of coastal and rural residents.
The Oregon Coastal Caucus (OCC) is a bicameral, bipartisan coalition of elected state officials organized in 1985 to explore areas of mutual interest among representatives in state government. The OCC is a vital voice not only in state politics but also on a national level, where the group has considerable influence, thanks to strong personal connections between caucus members and the state’s elected officials in Washington D.C.
Current members of the OCC are Rep. David Brock Smith, Sen. Betsy Johnson, Rep. Caddy McKeown, Sen. Arnie Roblan, Rep. David Gomberg, Sen. Dallas Heard, Rep. Brad Witt and Rep. Tiffany Mitchell.
The connections between Oregon and Washington were apparent throughout the summit as caucus members often led important and relevant discussions with senators and representatives, university presidents and directors of numerous state agencies. Many of these luminaries had traveled to Florence specifically to participate in the caucus.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, from Oregon’s Fourth District, was the keynote speaker on Wednesday, which was held at the main conference room at Three Rivers Casino Resort; U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden was the main speaker on Thursday at the Florence Events Center.
Both of these lunchtime discussions were held to full rooms of interested and engaged attendees. Questions from the audience and other speakers were posed by members of the OCC to Wyden and DeFazio, with responses that ranged from humorous to controversial. Noticeably, the messages shared by the state’s senior elected leaders were mainly positive, only occasionally touching on the wide divide between many of President Trump’s policies and their own.
This year’s conference was entitled; “Infrastructure Investment — A Collaborative Approach” and featured a wide array of panels and speakers.
There were panels that targeted a specific sector of the economy, such as winemaking, fishing and farming, to discussions centered on emergency preparedness and the issue of improving broadband infrastructure needs for rural coastal communities.
These topics were just some of the many different aspects of the economic paradigm which were examined and discussed with the ultimate goal of improving future economic prospects for all Oregonians.
The Coastal Caucus Economic Summit was presented in partnership with the Confederate Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, Three Rivers Casino Resort and the City of Florence.
The conference opened with an Invocation offered by Warren Brainard, Chief of the Confederated Tribes. The invocation was followed by a panel presentation which included members of the Coastal Caucus who discussed the history of the group and the unique work they have done in a positive, collaborative fashion.
One of the driving forces of the conference over the past few years has been Roblan, the Oregon state senator for District 5. He was involved in a number of panels. Roblan moderated the Thursday discussion with Wyden, which was focused on the ways in which legislators from both parties are attempting to find common ground in the face of an increasingly polarized political landscape.
There was some cause for optimism, according to Wyden, who has risen to a position of significant influence as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and as the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Wyden is also known for holding town hall meetings in each of the districts he represents on a regular basis, with more than 900 such meetings to date. Overall, the tone of Wyden’s remarks were positive, with a clear intent to highlight the bipartisan nature of recent legislative victories.
Wyden began his discussion with Roblan by recognizing and applauding the efforts made by the members of the OCC — and all of the participants at the summit — on their attendance, as well as their desire to work through differences by collaborating with the goal of finding solutions to problems based on a shared vision for the future.
Two of the issues specifically mentioned by Wyden will have an immediate impact on the Florence community: Prescription drug pricing and fire prevention/suppression costs.
“The centerpiece of my agenda is basically that same kind of collaboration. A few weeks ago, defying the odds, (Idaho) Sen. Chuck Grassley and I got out of the finance committee a bipartisan prescription bill to finally stop the price gouging that is taking place across Oregon and across the country,” Wyden said. “And in 40 days, just over a month, the Forest Service will fully implement the bill that (Idaho) Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and I have been working on for six years to end fire borrowing. We will get that into fire prevention. I don’t have to tell you that Oregon has 2 million acres that are shovel-ready for collaborative efforts to go in there and clean out the debris to prevent future forest fires. And that, too, is another bipartisan bill.”
Locally, Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue has assisted in a number of major fire suppression efforts in the past few years, particularly in California, and the process for paying smaller fire department members for their work on these joint efforts has been difficult to navigate at times. The result of the current payment reimbursement system has meant delays and financial concerns for both Siuslaw Valley and other departments.
Another major subject of discussion during the Economic Summit was the growing importance of the recreational sector to coastal economies. There were panels which included winemakers from King Estate Vineyards and other major producers of Oregon wines, even though there are few coastal vineyards. The thoughts in this regard being the potential sales associated with the burgeoning coastal recreational sector.
“The latest numbers on the recreational economy are about $11 billion annually, and this is a huge economic multiplier — whether it’s kayakers or craft breweries, the list goes on and on,” Wyden said. “Recently, with two of the Congress’s most conservative representatives, I introduced a bill that we call the R&R Bill. Recreation, not Red tape. And the point of these bills — both are in the House and the Senate — is to end some of the bureaucratic water torture that people go through when they try to get permits. I think there is a lot of support, particularly in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a major recreation bill. And I think we all know, for Oregon, this is literally an economic boon from one corner of the state to the other.”
DeFazio, unlike his Washington-based colleague, was less circumspect in his appraisal of the policies of the Trump administration, directly challenging the intent and uninformed nature of the president’s opinions.
There was some progress reported by DeFazio regarding the recent loss of funding for the U.S. Coast Guard during January’s partial government shutdown. As an official Coast Guard City, residents of Florence realized the difficulties being experienced by service members of Station Siuslaw River and collected nearly $50,000 in donations for unpaid Coast Guard members.
DeFazio has attempted to transfer responsibility for paying Coast Guard members from Homeland Security, which is unfunded during a shutdown, to a military-based payment entity with no positive results.
DeFazio was clear that some members of the House do not realize the importance of the Coast Guard to communities on the Oregon Coast.
“There are some people that haven’t served in this region who don’t realize that our waters aren’t survivable for any length of time year-round because of how cold they are. … The Pacific is way different than the Atlantic, so I have been very protective of the fastest response possible,” DeFazio said. “We passed a good Coast Guard bill out of my committee, it actually increases funding for the Coast Guard, which is chronically underfunded, and the Coast Guard actually intercepts more (illegal) drugs than every other agency of the federal government and all other state agencies combined.”
Perhaps the most upbeat comments of the two-day summit were made by Wyden as he continued pressing the idea that working together was possible. He suggested a role model for those in Washington to look towards.
“If I were to give you my top priority, it would be to take some of the Coastal Caucus sentiment for collaboration and bipartisanship to the nation’s capital,” he said. “I think it is a wonderful message you all are sending and I am going to try and take it back to Washington.”
(Editor’s Note: In the next few editions of the Siuslaw News, we will be providing a more in-depth examination of the policy suggestions, future planning and other important discussions that took place at this year’s Coastal Caucus that could directly affect our local community. These pieces will focus on education, increased funding needs for port and infrastructure improvements, ways to increase the building of affordable housing for coastal communities and the upcoming change in pharmaceutical prices.)