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Oh, what to do if you’re ready to exit the Oregon Legislature? How about one of the cushiest jobs in state government.

Actually, it’s more of a federal job, but why quibble about the details when the work comes with a $142,848 annual paycheck and a potentially hefty increase in state pension benefits.

Last week, Gov. Kate Brown appointed a longtime colleague, state Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, as one of Oregon’s two representatives on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Congress created the four-state commission in 1980 to establish and maintain long-range plans for power generation coupled with protection for fish and wildlife. As described in the council history, it was born from “our region’s disastrous experiment with building nuclear power plants in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

If you don’t remember ill-fated WPPSS – derisively pronounced “whoops” as the acronym for the Washington Public Power Supply System – you’re fortunate. It became the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. 

You’re still paying for that poor planning and inept execution. The region owes nearly $5 billion on the one nuclear plant that is operating and two that never were finished. Those costs, which gradually are being paid off, constitute one-third of the wholesale power rate that the Bonneville Power Administration charges its wholesale customers. 

So there’s a role for Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

“It’s very important work. It’s very complicated work,” said Burdick, who admits to a wonky side.

A spate of ex-legislators: Burdick will take office Nov. 1, allowing former Oregon state Sen. Richard Devlin, who chairs the council, to finish working on the latest revision of the 20-year power plan.

Brown had appointed Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day to three-year terms that ended this year. On April 1, Ferrioli was succeeded by Chuck Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Like Sams, Burdick must be confirmed by the Oregon Senate, which should be a given.

Whether Democrats or Republicans, half of Oregon’s appointees since the council’s inception have been former legislators and other elected officials. They include Congressman Bob Duncan; secretaries of state Norma Paulus and Bill Bradbury; and state Sens. Ted Hallock, Joyce Cohen, Gene Derfler and Joan Dukes.

Oregon generosity: The four member states set their own salaries for the job. Oregon’s $142,848 pay is well above the others: Washington, $115,000; Idaho, $119,995; and Montana, $122,464. 

Oregon also finagles the finances so its members can get PERS, which usually means a huge pension increase if they already were in PERS. The other states’ members have a different retirement setup.

Bonneville, the federal power-marketing organization, pays the council, which in turn pays the council members from Washington, Idaho and Montana. But Oregon’s members are paid by the Oregon Department of Energy, which then is reimbursed by the council. 

What does it take to be an expert? The council has a professional staff at its Portland headquarters and its four small regional offices in Portland; Vancouver, Washington; Eagle, Idaho; and Helena, Montana.

Devlin told me that he spends his days doing reading, more reading, and in all sorts of meetings. “We commonly work hard to reach agreement on issues,” he said. “We commonly look for compromises that people can live with that meet their needs.” 

To illustrate how quickly the planning scene changes, he cited batteries and fish runs. In just the time he’s been on the council, large-scale batteries for power storage have gone from being experimental to becoming part of a utility’s mix. On the other hand, he said, some fish runs now look dismal compared with only a few years ago.

In approaching Burdick about the job, Brown wanted someone with collaborative skills, which Burdick honed during 24 years in the Senate. Though the public best knows Burdick for her gun control advocacy, she’s relishes digging into tough issues, whether the ignominious Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) or cannabis regulation.

And long before entering the Legislature, Burdick worked for Atlantic Richfield Co.; directed environmental analysis for corporate clients; and reported on the environment and energy as a journalist.

Brown makes diversity a key criterion for appointments, and Burdick will be the only woman currently on the eight-member council. 

Second-hand, what the governor said: Brown’s deputy communications director, Charles Boyle, gave me this explanation for Burdick’s selection:

“In making this appointment to the Pacific Northwest Electric Power and Conservation Planning Council, Governor Brown was looking for a strong leader with experience in standing up for what is right when it comes to energy and conservation; experience developing policy in complex issue areas; and experience with a wide variety of stakeholder engagement — and that’s what she found in Senator Burdick.

“Sen. Burdick has more than 20 years of leadership experience in the Oregon Legislature, and is committed to equity in Oregon climate and energy policy. In her time as Majority Leader in the Senate, Sen. Burdick helped to lead her caucus while pushing for bold climate policy to reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sen. Burdick also recognizes the disproportionate impact of climate change on Oregon’s Black, Indigenous, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and communities of color.”

The cascading effect: A gubernatorial appointment, whether to the power council or another job, can be a way to reward an ally, sideline a political foe, gracefully retire a legislator and/or open the path for a new legislator. 

In this case, as with Devlin’s appointment, the changes likely will shift the Senate Democratic caucus further to the left and away from centrist Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, with whom Burdick had a close working relationship. Through a spokesman, Courtney declined to comment on Burdick’s appointment. 

Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, took Devlin’s Senate seat in 2018 and quickly established himself as a rising star of  the progressive wing. Last year he succeeded Burdick as Senate majority leader.

Burdick will stay in the Legislature through the 2021 session and a potential special session on redistricting. She said the timing is good. “I have been here for 24 years,” she said. “I think it’s time for a new challenge.” 

As has been noted by Gary Warner, my colleague with the Oregon Capital Insider, there undoubtedly will be a fierce fight to gain the appointment to fill Burdick’s vacancy from Senate District 18. By law, the Multnomah and Washington county commissioners must choose someone from her party, thus a Democrat. Unlike the days of yore, it’s become quite difficult for a centrist Democrat to win appointment or election in the Portland area.

Potential candidates include the  first-time state representatives from the two House districts that make up the Senate district – Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, and Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland. Choosing either one would set off a similar process to fill the then-vacant House seat.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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