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Rural Oregon has new voice in Salem
By MITCH LIES Oregon Staff Writer 2/3/05

First-term Oregon Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, brings a rural outlook to the state Capitol. Whitsett, a Southern Oregon farmer, is a former veterinarian and former president of the irrigation water rights advocacy organization Water For Life. - MARK ROZIN, Capital Press

SALEM – From his office on the third floor of the Capitol, first-term Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, has a unique perspective. It’s not so much his view of State Street that is unique, but where he is coming from.

Whitsett, 61, is entering politics at an age when most are starting to plan for retirement.

The farmer-veterinarian combines a background in science with the common-sense approach he cultivated while running a small farm and a veterinary clinic.

“I believe my science background helps in critical thinking,” he said, “and my background as a veterinarian helps in problem resolution.

“Maybe I can bring something to the Senate that hasn’t been here,” he said.

Whitsett, who went to high school in Prineville, Ore., graduated from Washington State University’s veterinary college in 1968. He raises primarily pasture and timber on two small farms in Southern Oregon.

Whitsett, who sold his veterinary practice in 1994, said he decided to enter politics partly because opportunity knocked and partly because he believed rural Oregon needed a voice in Salem.

The opportunity developed when the four-term Republican senator from District 28, Steve Harper, decided not to seek a fifth term.

Whitsett, who was president of the irrigation water rights advocacy group Water for Life when the Senate post came open, said Harper encouraged him to run. Harper retired from politics to spend more time with his family.

“He and his wife took us (Whitsett and his wife, Gail) by the hand and helped us immensely,” Whitsett said.

Whitsett gained 60 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican primary and won the general election by a landslide.

Whitsett, who has been appointed to the Senate commerce, judiciary and transportation committees, said he would like to address several issues during his time in state politics.

Among the issues is a concern that government agencies are overstepping their bounds in drafting regulation.

“I’m disturbed that there are several agencies that are expanding their authority by writing administrative rules that are not authorized by existing statute,” he said.

“Government needs to be more accountable and more transparent: Certainly the budget process has to be more transparent so a person who wants to see where their money is going, can,” he said.

Whitsett is a strong supporter of Measure 37, the property rights compensation measure voters passed in the fall, and he said he would like to see land-use regulations made more accommodating for rural Oregon.

“Land use regulations work better on the West side than they do on the East side,” he said. “We need to adopt changes that allow economic development in rural areas.

“Most of the state’s land-use regulations are for the perceived benefit of the public, but they are only being paid for by the individual who owns the land.”

A longtime water rights advocate who just recently stepped down as president of Water For Life, Whitsett believes the public needs to be better informed about the importance of water to farming.

“A water right makes up 95 percent of the value of the land (in some basins),” he said. “When they turned off the water in the Klamath Basin in 2001, the assessed value of the land went from $600 an acre to $27 an acre.”

Whitsett, one of two new Republican senators this session, said he also is interested in refining the budget for public education.

“It needs to be studied to determine the cost of services and how much we’re getting for our dollars,” he said.

“I would like to see the entire state budgeting process done more from a standpoint the way a business does it,” he said. “I would like to see it more performance-based.”

Whitsett said he is much more comfortable working on his farm than working the halls of the state Capitol. “I live in the country because I like the country,” he said.

Still, he is enjoying his first week at the Capitol. “So far, it’s been very interesting,” he said. “It’s been a steep learning curve – similar to going to college. There is a tremendous amount of information coming at you.”

While the Oregon Senate may be a beneficiary of Whitsett’s scientific background and his fresh approach to lawmaking, rural Oregon may be the big winner of Whitsett’s decision to seek office.

“The real underlying reason for my being here,” he said, “is based on the fact that for years, I have seen the rural economy and lifestyle under fire. I believe it has been the backbone of America forever, and I would hate to see it disappear on my watch.”

Mitch Lies reports from Salem. His e-mail address is mlies@capitalpress.com.

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