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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.18.10




Where Are You From?

Local commissioner works to sway D.C. power players

By Pete Sorenson

President Kennedy once said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

In Oregon, when people ask, “Where are you from?” they expect to hear answers like “I grew up in Coos County, but I’ve lived in Eugene for more than 30 years” which is what I say. Oregonians are generally interested to know if you’re new to Eugene or whether you’ve moved from L.A., and you have to be careful about you handle the answer to that one.

But in Washington, D.C., when people ask you where you are from they aren’t talking geography; they are talking power. The answer to that question in D.C. is “Senator Merkley’s office” (freshman Senator) or “the majority leader’s office” (very powerful) or “the White House” (very powerful). If someone, like me, slips and says “I grew up in Coos County, Oregon, but now I live in Eugene” then people know (not very important).

So, that’s the introduction to my recently concluded trip to D.C., attending two events sponsored by the United Front (UF) and the National Association of Counties (NACo). UF is a joint effort of the cities of Eugene and Springfield, Lane Transit District (LTD), Lane County and a variety of other local folks. UF is an effort to pull together a list of federally funded projects (or requested projects). NACo is an association of 2,400 of America’s 3,000 or so counties, parishes and boroughs.

Mayor Piercy of Eugene and Mike Eyster, president of the LTD Board, and I were in several meetings. In the office of the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, I asked if we could get some flexibility on the use of federal transit funds. The feds will use tax dollars to buy buses for our bus fleet, especially the LTD’s path-breaking EmX system, but we can’t use the money for operating those buses. People would see LTD buying (with federal tax dollars) those big nice EmX vehicles, only to have to shut down or curtail service at the same time. The Obama administration officials we met with seemed willing to have a suspension, at least, in the current policy that forbids mixing capital and operational dollars. So, too, did our three congressional offices. I met personally with Sen. Wyden and Congressman DeFazio, and with Sen. Merkley’s staff, on this point. I think this will be a good change.

Another big topic for me, and all of us in Lane County, is federal forest land payments, the compensation we get for having untaxed federal forest lands in Lane County. We have two years left on these guaranteed payments, and an extension is what we are trying to get. There’s no bill yet to do that. I met with a White House person and a deputy assistant secretary of agriculture for natural resources; both said the administration hasn’t taken a position. The congressional offices all said that they are waiting on the White House. Each side is waiting for the other to go first.

If this legislation — which I testified on before Congress a few years ago — isn’t extended, Lane County will go from about $50 million a year (for roads, schools and public safety) to $5 million. We’re currently estimating that in fiscal year 2012-13 we will drop our general fund by $17 million, mostly in public safety, juvenile justice, health, animal control and similar services. This means significant reductions to these programs.

We are working actively with people from other states. I met with North Carolina county commissioners and an official from the Association of Arkansas Counties. They will be helping push the extension.

Beyond meetings on these local projects and the big ticket item affecting National Forest counties, several meetings and educational sessions stand out for me.

D.C.’s U Street area, famous as Duke Ellington’s neighborhood, has so many Obama administration young people that it’s been dubbed “Obama Alley.” I met a young Oregonian from Beaverton who’s an assistant at the Defense Department, where his job is to help find waste. There’s a former assistant to Defazio whom the Obama administration named to the number two post over rural utilities. These young people are working hard for Obama’s change initiatives.

At the NACo conference I attended two memorable programs. One was on the impact of transportation on public health. As we build car-dominant communities, the evidence is strong for poor health. The reverse is true as well. Another good program was on the history of acid rain reductions from “offsets” and the prospects of carbon offset trading as a way to lower greenhouse gases.

Now, after 10 days on the road and staying with friends, I really appreciate the chance to tell someone “I’m from Eugene.”

Peter Sorenson is a Lane County Commissioner representing South Eugene. He has previously served as a state senator, an attorney in private practice, an assistant in the Carter administration, and an aide to former Congressman Jim Weaver.