Energy

Energy for an Energy Plan

Governor Kitzhaber has prevailed in persuading lawmakers to approve high-profile initiatives in education, early childhood learning and health care. Now he wants to tackle energy, which could prove a more elusive and tougher sell.

Earlier this year, Kitzhaber handpicked three dozen industry insiders to recommend innovative policy ideas and create a 10-year energy plan. Teams worked for four months, focusing on: 1) consumption/energy efficiency, 2) supply side/resource mix, 3) siting, 4) transportation, and 5) governance.

The group sent its recommendations to Kitzhaber, which now have been made public. Their major theme is reducing carbon dioxide emissions through energy source conversion, more reliance on renewables, and ditching power generation based on high-carbon fossil fuels. Most Oregonians may not know that more than half of the state’s electricity comes from coal-burning power plants.

One big hurdle in accomplishing carbon reduction is already surmounted as PGE has agreed to close down its Boardman coal-fired plant. But even that decision raises thorny questions as the utility looks for a way to replace a source of reliable energy to serve its base load.

Legislators had a previous taste of energy politics when they considered, but didn't act, in the 2009 session on a cap-and-trade proposal, intended to use market forces to encourage businesses with options to switch to energy sources with lower carbon emissions.

Since then, interest has grown in the merits of a carbon tax, which is a more direct disincentive for using fossil fuels. It also is a tax, which raises political flags.

Huge Issues Loom in 2013 Session

The short 2012 session just ended and there are nine months until the 2013 legislature convenes, but it is still timely to look ahead at the issues that need resolution or are just ripening for action.

At the top of the list is how Governor Kitzhaber's health care transformation strategy will work and whether newly forming coordinated care organizations can squeeze out cost savings in serving Oregon's Medicaid population. The health insurance exchange will get up and running, just as the federal health care reform measure lands in the U.S. Supreme Court, which could toss some or all of the controversial reform legislation.

Despite a slow economic recovery, many parts of Oregon still feel the after-effects of recession and could benefit from state efforts to boost employment. Strong differences exist between Republicans and Democrats on how to stimulate job growth, especially in rural Oregon.

As a result of education reform measures pushed by Kitzhaber, K-12 school districts are signing achievement compacts to promote improved student learning. A question remains whether this reform will under-perform or have unintended consequences as have previous reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Lawmakers in February approved a measure that deals with home foreclosures. However, consumer advocates felt it didn't go far enough, while bank and title company officials said it might not work as expected.

Kitzhaber, who will be entering the last two years of his third term, has vowed to give tax reform another shot. This has proven to be as elusive as the pot of gold under the rainbow. While a majority of Oregonians feel the state's current tax system isn't sustainable, there is no clear consensus on how to refine or replace it. A state sales tax is certain to make another stage appearance, with a few clapping and others throwing big red tomatoes. 

Local governments are pressing for expanded access to property tax revenues. They are looking for authority to exceed property tax rate limitations for voter-approved levies. The temporary state hospital tax expires and hospital interests may be less willing to go along with an extension after proceeds were diverted from their original purpose.

Cool Schools Bill Passed – Now What?

Public schools around Oregon this summer are getting energy-efficient upgrades such as new windows and boilers, thanks to the so-called "Cool Schools" bill (House Bill 2960) the legislature passed this session. Governor Kitzhaber touted the program as a job-creation plan during his campaign, saying it would put to work hundreds of contractors who would install locally made, energy-efficient products in schools.

Governor Kitzhaber outlines Cool Schools projects that were "shovel ready" when he signed the bill in June.The politics behind the Cool Schools bill were remarkable. The bill was labeled as Governor Kitzhaber's initiative and championed by two young, progressive House Democrats from Portland, Reps. Jules Bailey and Jefferson Smith. By all accounts, Republicans had every right to be skeptical. But the bill sailed through the legislature, gaining unanimous votes in both chambers. By the time the bill passed the Senate, Republicans such as Rep. Tim Freeman of Roseburg had signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill directs the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) to issue low- or zero-interest loans to schools. School districts submit an application to ODOE outlining schools' needs, and ODOE issues the funds. The money schools save on lower energy bills should be more than enough to pay back the loans over time.