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April 19th, 2006 WW Editorial Staff | Rogue of the Week
 

A Substantial Contingent Of The Oregon Legislature

Rogues Of The Week

     
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For their willingness to rent out their names to help monopoly utilities divert customers' payments intended for the tax collector, we bestow rogue honors this week on a substantial contingent of the Oregon Legislature.

efore getting into how the latest campaign fundraising reports show that roguishness, here's some background: Over the past nine years, Portland General Electric collected nearly $900 million from Oregon ratepayers to cover its income taxes. Instead of paying the taxes, however, PGE's parent, Enron, kept the money. Other utilities also benefited from similar tax practices, but on a smaller scale.

So, despite the strong objections of PGE, PacifiCorp and other regulated utilities, the 2005 Legislature passed Senate Bill 408, which requires that utilities collect no more for taxes than they actually pay.

But when the law went to the Oregon Public Utility Commission for implementation, PacifiCorp launched an all-out assault, and at least 13 legislators wrote to the PUC parroting PacifiCorp's opposition and asking regulators to de-fang the new law (see "Power Switches," WW, Oct. 26, 2005).

Lawmakers rarely lobby regulators in such fashion, say PUC spokesman Bob Valdez and Melinda Davison, a lawyer for Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities.

"I don't recall the commission ever receiving this much interest from legislators on any other issue," Valdez says.

Reports filed with the state last week show the letter writers collectively hauled in about $25,000 in campaign contributions from the utilities in the weeks following their correspondence on behalf of the utilities. (Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who signed SB 408 into law but attached a highly unusual letter hedging his approval, picked up another $12,500 in the same period).

The recipients fall into two categories. First are those who opposed the bill from the outset and are thus marginally less roguish because their letters were at least consistent with their votes, such as Reps. Brad Avakian (D-Portland), Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego), Tom Butler (R-Ontario) and Sen. Jason Atkinson (R-Central Point), who's running in the GOP primary for governor. Avakian benefited most from the utilities' largesse, collecting $6,250.

Then there are the higher-level rogues, those who voted for SB 408 but later tried to undermine it with their letters: Reps. Wayne Scott (R-Canby), Brian Boquist, (R-Dallas), Andy Olson (R-Albany), Dave Hunt, (D-Oak Grove), Derrick Kitts, (R-Hillsboro) and Gordon Anderson (R-Grants Pass), and Sens. Roger Beyer (R-Molalla), Frank Morse (R-Albany) and Doug Whitsett, (R-Klamath Falls). The biggest utility beneficiary in this group, Scott, received $3,500.

Beyer and Whitsett weren't required to file last week because they're not up for re-election this year, so it's unclear whether they received money. But all the others accepted at least one utility check after writing to the PUC.

Kitts, who is running for Congress, says there's "absolutely no connection" between his letter and a $1,000 check he got the next month from PGE.

The utility industry historically gives generously in Salem, but donating to letter-writing legislators in close proximity to their communication with the PUC raises questions about the integrity of those letters.

Not every letter writer was rewarded, however.

"I wrote a letter to the PUC [urging full implementation], and I didn't get any money," says state Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene), who sponsored SB 408.


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