Democrat Nathan Weller thinks the Whitman County Commission should take a more proactive role in shaping the future of its constituents. Republican Michael Largent thinks government's role should be to create favorable conditions to improve that future, then get out of the way.Let me say that overall, my biggest problems with Nathan Weller are his taking Wes Taylor to task about student voters when he himself had not voted in six years and trying to co-opt Republicans against other Republicans. Other than that, he is not nearly as left-wing as the other local twentysomething Democrats running for office. Weller certainly has a lot of ideas. Unforunately, those ideas are something he seems to have found surfing the Internet, and don't seem to have much basis in reality. "Planning" and "proactive" and "economic develpment zones" are just feel-good buzzwords. What we need is private investment, not more big government. Michael Largent has the knowledge and experience to understand that.
Both men are vying for the commission's District 3 seat being vacated by Republican Les Wigen.
"We've had this mentality of hands-off government, and we'll deal with (a problem) when it comes," Weller, 24, said. "We need some real future planning, and it's not there right now."
He is exploring the idea of "economic development zones" -- especially for the more rural areas -- that could attract businesses with financial incentives.
Largent, a 47-year-old Colfax farmer, said such zones would have complicated tax implications that could make them infeasible.I nstead, he sees making it easier to build residences in unincorporated areas and streamlining business siting procedures as key to rural economic development.
"I think it is the role of government to provide an economic environment that attracts business, that makes it easier to start business, and is friendly to business," Largent said.
Weller said wind power is one opportunity for economic development that has been overlooked in the state's rush to develop alternative energy sources. "We have a moderate amount of wind," he said. "So it can be developed here. It just hasn't."
Largent said he, too, is in favor of renewable energy, and would love to explore the feasibility of bringing wind power to the county.
"I think it would be a great source of income," Largent said. "Particularly as energy prices rise, the capital investment cost is easier to recoup in marginal wind areas."
Largent and Weller said the county can't afford to invest in wind outright, and should seek help from the state economic development agency. But Weller said the current commission has missed out on significant funding opportunities.
"They haven't been working with the state government," Weller said. "You get the support from the state government, and then we can work as a team instead of just working in our little corner."
Weller said having a Democrat on the traditionally Republican commission would help bridge his perceived divide between the county and Olympia. "If we have this idea that we can't work with the state because they're Democratic, it's not going to help us at all, and we're going to be left in the dust."
Largent said state funding is important to Whitman County's economic progress, especially if it can be used to lure an oilseed operation that produces biodiesel.
"When the state is passing out economic development grant money and we have the infrastructure and the resources here to take advantage of those grants, we want to get on top of that," he said.
But the promise of an alternative fuel bonanza for struggling farmers won't be delivered for some time, he said.
"Just because there's a crushing facility in your area doesn't mean (commodity) prices go up for farmers," Largent said. Those producers will import seed stocks from Canada and the Midwest until they can afford to buy locally.
Another challenge facing farmers is the potential loss of the short-line railroad that serves the area, Largent said. The state transportation department is trying to buy the line, owned by Watco, but to date has been unsuccessful. The line may have more salvage value for Watco.
"Rail is one of the three legs of our transportation stool here in Whitman County," he said. The commission should be using its leverage with state representatives to ensure the successful purchase of the line, he said.
Weller said he hadn't fully considered the issue, but he admired the European rail system when he visited there. "I often thought when I came back, why not here?"
Affordable housing is another problem that is negatively affecting the county's growth, both candidates said. Weller pointed to language in the zoning code that discourages housing development on agricultural lands.
"If we start saying in the planning commission 'we need to discourage residential development,' that's what you're going to get," Weller said. "We need to have a positive attitude toward bringing in more residences, or else we're going to have what we have here in Pullman, $150,000 to $200,000 houses, and nobody's going to be able to afford that."
He said so-called "cluster" developments on farmland can lessen the impact on agriculture, promote a sense of community in the country and be cheaper than independently built homes.
Largent agreed that a dearth of low-cost housing is throttling back Pullman's growth. "One of the things we can do as a county is to make sure that we're not standing in the way of affordable housing and additional housing necessary to provide a labor force to the businesses' growth that's happening in the Pullman area."
Olympia is not our savior. Quite the opposite. The suburbanites from the west side who dominate the legislature don't understand our needs and never will, Republican or Democrat. Working more closely with the state will accomplish nothing. Michael Largent is absolutely right about tax breaks. Ed Schweitzer calls them "corporate welfare" and is vehemently opposed to them. We must make the county more business friendly and take care of ourselves. State handouts don't build businesses that last.
In any case, Whitman County and the Palouse Economic Development Council are already using much of the development money to which Weller refers. This just reflects Weller's inexperience and lack of knowledge.
Wind power? Nice idea, but seeing how some folks in this county get apoplectic over hilltop development and "viewscapes",can you imagine trying to permit a forest of 30-foot high windmills, such as the ones near Vantage, here in Whitman County?
And suggesting some sort of European-style rail transport system in a small rural county is just silly. It hearkens back to Judy Krueger and her trolley. "Why not here?" Has Weller not heard what a money pit the light rail project in Seattle has turned into?
Having a bunch of gee-whiz ideas does not qualify someone for public office. I want someone who is more realistic about what can and can't be accomplished, especially when it involves the taxpayer's dime and increasing government bureaucracy.
The choice is clear: vote Largent on November 7th.