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Spin Control: Spokane port district push resurfaces

OLYMPIA – It’s possible that in politics, as in fashion, everything comes back in style.

I believe in the latter and save a particularly striking, albeit too wide, paisley necktie from the 1970s that I really like but don’t wear because of my daughter, who makes her living telling other people what not to wear and who I suspect would be all too happy to give me her expert advice for free. I keep it in the back of the tie drawer, bring it out on occasion to consider with new shirts or jackets, then put it back without knotting a full Windsor.

Spokane political leaders apparently believe in political full circles, salivating once again over the prospect of a port district. They’re supporting legislation that would change the way such districts are formed in hopes of gaining approval from voters who in the past have been skeptical.

How skeptical? In 1982, a proposal to form a port district in Spokane County suffered one of the worst defeats in local electoral history, a no-to-yes ratio of about 4 to 1. For perspective, Barack Obama did better than that in Kootenai County and Mitt Romney did better in the heart of Seattle.

There are several reasons why the port district proposal sank like the Titanic 32 years ago. One was that when people think of a “port” they think of a place where large ocean-going ships pull in to unload, and the Spokane River seems a tad small for that. A larger factor was probably that the election took place in the middle of a recession, and voters were being asked “Would you like to have a new tax?”

Since then, a significant portion of Spokane’s powers-that-be have bided their time for a redo, convinced that voters would come to their senses and approve this portal into economic prosperity if given a second chance.

This year, the Legislature has the latest wrinkle in making port districts acceptable with a pair of bills to change the way they are constituted. Under current law, when a community votes whether to form a port district, it also elects district commissioners. In 1982, this resulted in three folks being elected to a board that didn’t exist, and possibly creating a Final Jeopardy answer for the category “Spokane Political Trivia.”

Under House Bill 2457 and its companion Senate Bill 6315, voters would first decide if they want a district, then elect commissioners at the next election if the proposal succeeds.

HB 2457 sailed through the House on a 95-2 vote last week; SB 6315 awaits a vote by the Senate. Nothing is certain in this legislative session, but the bipartisan support for these two bills makes the idea a good bet.

Then the question will be whether this small change is enough to help dress up a port district and make it fashionable for Spokane voters. Otherwise, the leaders may have to stick it way back in the political ideas drawer for a while.

Nuke study advances

The Senate also flashed back briefly to the 1980s last week in a discussion of nuclear power. Or as several senators would have it, “nucular power.” It approved a bill calling for the study of new “modular” nuclear technologies to see whether they make economic sense.

This may seem strange in a state that witnessed the largest financial meltdown over nuclear power, along with the most onomatopoeic acronym for a mistake of nuclear proportions when WPPSS was pronounced as “Whoops!” But the 1980s were a long time ago, and some memories apparently have short half-lives.

The debate featured some of the same back and forth that has marked discussions of nuclear power in the country for decades. The Navy operates nuclear reactors on ships in Puget Sound without incident, said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia. “We shouldn’t just say no because it’s nuclear.”

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said fears about nuclear safety “have been overblown” and contended residents of the Southeast and Atlantic Coast who are facing long power outages because of a storm would be happy to have more power. Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said he was confusing power generation with power transmission, which was the source of those outages.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, cited nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, and said the state was “only lucky” it hasn’t had such problems at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. 

“Why would we be looking at this as a new source of energy? Over the last 50 years, it has been a disaster,” Rolfes said.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said he had no problem with the study but he felt the language in the bill’s intent section was too broad in declaring nuclear power a “safe industry.”

The study passed 34-15.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/ spincontrol.

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