Northwest Power Sees Flying Pigsby Editors
Seattle Times, February 9, 2006
Welcome to the annual assault on the Northwest power benefit that is a fixture of Bush administration budgets.
Regardless of the form, the administration's annual schemes indicate an ideological opposition to the idea of cost-based public power, a concept that built much of the Northwest economy. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power mostly from 31 federal dams, provides about 40 percent of the power in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The latest federal Office of Management and Budget proposes that Bonneville's surplus power sales revenues - typically occurring in good water years - should go to pay down the agency's debt to the U.S. Treasury. An estimated $924 million over the next decade would free greater debt capacity for infrastructure improvements.
But here's the rub: There is no guarantee the surplus will be used to pay down the debt and not to pay for other things - say, tax cuts or the war in Iraq.
Further, BPA would lose the ability to adjust quickly the myriad dials and pulleys of dozens of factors that affect Northwest rates and the flexibility to manage power across good water years and bad.
Last year's volley had the administration suggesting the BPA charge higher, market rates to its many Northwest customers, which would have traumatized an economy built on cost-based rates.
This year's version is especially precious because of its "for-your-own-good" overlay of debt reduction. But many in the Northwest congressional delegation - Democrats and Republicans - and the power community aren't buying it. Same pig, different lipstick, said one. A "skim" scam, said another.
The federal budgeteers' rationale is usually some variant of this: Northwest power ratepayers are living large off the subsidy that built the federal hydropower system.
Here's the truth: Northwest ratepayers are paying off Bonneville's debt. On time. At market-rate interest. No subsidy. Nice try, guys. But this pig shouldn't fly.
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