12 December 2012 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

Does Kitzhaber Exercise Too Much Power?

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

Oregon Governor Dr. John Kitzhaber – in his third four-year term as Oregon’s governor after an eight-year hiatus during the two terms of Ted Kulongoski – does not have absolute power, but it seems that he has a lot of power, and does not hesitate to use it.

In the November general election, Oregon voters overwhelmingly defeated Measure 81, which would have banned commercial gillnet fishing in the Columbia River.

But last Friday, after a only few months of studying a plan which Kitzhaber himself proposed, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC), of which most of the members, including the chair, were appointed by Kitzhaber, approved a plan to move gillnets off of the Columbia River and primarily restrict commercial fishing to “off-channel select areas” such as the Young’s Bay net pens and Blind Slough. (See the story that begins on page 1 for more information.)

Scott Lee, one of the Clatsop County commissioners who journeyed to Salem last week on the unsuccessful mission to change Kitzhaber’s mind, pointed out that the state’s review of its “territorial sea plan” has been ongoing for four years and has still drawn complaints that it is rushed. The gillnet proposal was adopted after only four months.

While it’s hard to predict the exact effect of these significant changes in policies to an industry that has existed on the Columbia for well over a century – and on ordinary Oregonians’ future ability to eat a piece of salmon – many along the Lower Columbia River are upset and feeling betrayed by the governor.

While researching for this column we read on the governor’s website that he makes appointments to over 220 state boards and commissions. That’s a lot of power.

As a result of the November general election, the Democrats – Kitzhaber’s party – now have control of both houses of the legislature. During the previous session, the Republicans and Democrats had equal numbers in the Senate, forcing some bipartisanship. Now the governor and his party have complete control of the state government. There are few in his party ready to stand against him, although we are proud to say that our State Senator Betsy Johnson, a Democrat, fights for the good of her constituents first.

It was thanks in large part to Johnson’s intervention that the Port of St. Helens finally got a response to its letter to the governor sent last May. As reported in last week’s Chief, although the governor himself didn’t come, he did send his chief of staff and top economic advisors to see for themselves the huge under-developed economic asset that is the Port Westward industrial park near Clatskanie.

One of the big questions on the minds of the Port of St. Helens commissioners and other local economic leaders is, if the governor doesn’t want the two coal export facilities that are currently proposed for Port Westward – and he’s made it abundantly clear that he does not – what will he allow at this last large industrial site on the Lower Columbia River that we have been trying to develop for nearly 50 years?

We hope his advisors will inform him about the assets of Port Westward and the help we need to develop it and bring jobs to Northwest Oregon. But they made it pretty clear that they wouldn’t promote anything having to do with coal. They did say, however, that the governor’s office wouldn’t interfere with the state agencies evaluating permits for the plant – although the governor certainly didn’t hesitate to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a “programmatic review” of the entire coal export industry before allowing any more facilities in the Pacific Northwest. So far, the Corps hasn’t caved in to the governor’s request.

We must congratulate the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) personnel who were here last week for a public hearing on Ambre Energy’s Morrow Pacific project. (See separate story that begins on page 1.) Not withstanding the criticism of the anti-coal contingent that comprised over 50 percent of those in attendance, the DEQ staff gave every indication that they intended to issue or not issue the permits for the project based on its ability to meet Oregon’s environmental standards.

We will see.

In the meantime and despite the fact that the state legislature will go into session in January anyway, on Monday Kitzhaber called a special session of the legislature for this Friday, Dec. 14, where they will be asked to consider authorizing the governor  to “enter into agreements with companies committing to significant job growth and investment in Oregon,” specifically for a planned expansion of Nike. It had been rumored that Nike was considering moving out of Oregon because of what many consider to be the state government’s policies and attitudes that are unfriendly to business.

We’re all for keeping Nike in Oregon, but it would be nice if the governor showed even a fraction of the interest in bringing jobs to rural Oregon – or even in keeping the existing natural resources jobs – outside of the Portland metropolitan and northern Willamette Valley area, which comprises the base of his political power.

And, Governor Kitzhaber’s dictates are not limited to the economy. He has grabbed the power over public education in the state with his Oregon Education Investment Board and his appointed education czar Rudy Crew, the state’s first “chief education officer.”

Despite state law, he has declared that no capital punishment will take place in Oregon during his reign.

In the November election, the voters granted the governor the authority to not only declare a “catastrophic disaster” in case of acts of terrorism, earthquakes, floods, public health emergencies, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and war, but to override laws allocating money to state agencies in order to respond to the disaster,

In addition to the calling of the special session, Monday brought the news that the federal “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) gave Oregon conditional approval for its plan to operate a health insurance exchange – called Cover Oregon – which will help connect thousands of Oregonians to health coverage.”

Kitzhaber was the author of the Oregon Health Plan that is currently being revamped and expanded. Through its almost 20 years in existence, the plan has expanded or retracted in response to the economy, and more and more state resources have been directed towards it. Now Oregon is trying to tap into more federal resources to fund health care.

Frankly, we don’t know what to think about the state’s health care programs. We know health insurance is beyond the financial means of many people, and that’s a big problem, but the Oregon Health Plan is also a big expense, and it hasn’t resulted in the savings that were promised when it was first passed.

We suspect the state’s tax system is next on Dr. John’s to-do list.

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