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August 29th, 2012 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

Cracked Rearview

Mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith’s legislative accomplishments aren’t as large as he makes them appear.

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State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) says the change he drives is more important than how he drives his car.

As The Oregonian dribbled out news this month of Smith’s seven driver’s license suspensions, his mayoral campaign has urged voters to focus on the totality of his accomplishments.

“I think my legislative record is relevant to seeing how I process problems and try to solve them,” Smith says.

In speeches and campaign materials, Smith cites his teamwork in Salem as a leading argument for why he’s the right candidate to lead the city of Portland.

“My experience working in the Legislature, on bills with folks from all over the state and on both sides of the aisle, will be an asset in our ‘weak mayor’ system,” he writes on his campaign website.

Yet an examination of what’s actually resulted from three of the bills Smith most often touts raises questions about just how much he achieved in Salem, where the two-termer has served since 2009. His record reflects diverse enthusiasms that make for good sound bites but have produced limited impact.

Smith, 39, often talks about his co-sponsorship of House Bill 3369B, also called the Oregon Water Reinvestment Act of 2009. On his legislative website, he refers to the bill as a “landmark” achievement responsible for “creating sustainable jobs in Eastern Oregon.”

First, some background: For years, farmers in the Umatilla basin have looked jealously across the Columbia River, where Washington farmers use far more river water to grow higher-value crops. State Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton), who represents those Eastern Oregon farmers, had tried, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation that would allow his constituents to tap the Columbia.

In 2009, enjoying a 36-24 majority, Democrats paired Smith, then a rookie, with Jenson.

Lobbyist John DiLorenzo, who represented Eastern Oregon interests, says Smith worked well with disparate groups to help pass the bill.

“I thought he did a great job,” DiLorenzo says.

But the bill’s promise has not materialized. A $2.5 million pilot program to store Columbia water underground during the winter for use the following summer proved disappointing. Cracks caused a long-depleted aquifer to leak. Secondary storage is very expensive, a project review found, and the costs of environmental mitigation were high.

As a result of such challenges, even though the state set aside $10 million in state bonding capacity in 2009 and another $15 million in 2011 to fund projects for Smith’s bill, there have been no takers.

“Nobody has applied for the money,” says Brenda Bateman, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

A task force did achieve a secondary goal of the bill, writing the state’s first integrated water-management plan.

But farmers—the people the water legislation was supposed to benefit—feel the bill is a bust, not only because the Umatilla project fell short but because the legislation raised the bar for future irrigation work.

“It has not been effective,” says Katie Fast, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau. “It has been controversial since the bill passed because the environmental restrictions go far beyond what was already in place.

“There are other water needs throughout the state,” Fast adds. “And this bill may have made things worse for everybody.”

Smith acknowledges nobody has tapped the state money his bill appropriated. And his claim the bill is “creating sustainable jobs” is not true—he cannot point to any jobs created other than temporary work on the pilot project.

He remains optimistic, however, that the aquifer-filling scheme may work, and makes no apologies for the environmental demands farmers dislike.

“There are people who’d like to pull water out with the least payback possible,” he says. “But there’s no free lunch.”


Smith also regularly touts a job-creation program he passed last year called “economic gardening.”

Although the name may be confusing, the concept isn’t new.

Smith modeled his legislation on a program city officials in Littleton, Colo., began in 1987. Their approach called for catering to the requirements of small, homegrown companies rather than using subsidies to recruit larger companies from elsewhere.

Locally, the Portland Development Commission highlighted economic gardening in a June 2009 jobs plan—a year before Smith introduced his legislation.

In 2010, Smith got approval for a task force. The next year, he succeeded in getting $300,000 in funding for a pilot program.

So what does economic gardening actually do?

It refines the approach of a 30-year-old state program, the Oregon Small Business Development Network.

Directed by Michael Lainoff, the network includes offices at 17 Oregon community colleges and two regional universities. It has a $4 million budget.

Lainoff’s agency had previously assigned one former CEO to mentor a targeted small company. But in Smith’s economic gardening pilot program, Lainoff provides two executives rather than one.

“We’ve also engaged additional resources in terms of [geographic information systems] market research and digital media tools,” Lainoff says.

Since the program began in July of last year, 11 Oregon companies have received economic gardening services.

The results to date? 

“We are showing one new job so far, quite frankly,” Lainoff says. 

“The bill hasn’t shown the promise its sponsors had hoped for,” says state Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland), who is supporting Smith’s opponent, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales.

Smith says it’s too soon to judge the pilot program. But he says economic gardening is a more effective approach than enterprise zones, a state economic development program in which each job can cost $100,000 in subsidies. He adds that gardening is helping shift the state’s focus to homegrown companies, which historically generate far more jobs than out-of-state employers. 

“That is the bigger thing,” Smith says.


A third major Salem accomplishment Smith touts is 2009 legislation that enabled online voter registration, continuing a focus he developed as executive director of the Bus Project.

Yet the number of Oregonians actually registered to vote has lagged since Smith’s bill went into effect. 

“Jefferson deserves some credit for making it easier to update your registration,” says Seth Woolley, the Pacific Green Party candidate for secretary of state. “But I don’t think it’s been very effective.”

State figures show that voters have used the system 160,000 times since February 2010, when online registration began, but most users simply updated existing registrations. The number of voters registered actually increased by a small fraction of that number—15,000.

Over the same period, the state’s population increased by more than 100,000. Even without online registration, that population increase should have led to a bigger voter registration increase than has occurred.

In the two-year spans starting in February 2002 and again in 2006 (which like 2010 were non-presidential election years), registration also grew more than it has since online registration began.

Smith defends his bill.

“If there are 160,000 people who have been able to interact without driving to a government building and taking up the time of a government worker, that is positive,” he says, adding that keeping a voter on the rolls is as important as signing a new one.

But Smith says the Internet can’t replace human contact.

“A passive system will never take the place of voter education or voter registration drives,” he says.

In fact, says public-interest lawyer and elections activist Dan Meek, online registration is “a misnomer.”

Registered voters can use the Internet to update their addresses or party registration—but many Oregonians, Meek notes, cannot use the tool at all. That’s because the system requires a valid Oregon driver’s license. 


FACT: In 2011, Smith sat on the House Transportation and Economic Development and General Government and Consumer Protection committees.

 
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