Kitzhaber announces first job-creation ideas

SALEM — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday directed the Department of Energy to use $2 million of leftover federal stimulus dollars to conduct energy audits on 500 schools, the first step toward his campaign goal of weatherizing public education buildings.

The audits are the most concrete of several suggestions Kitzhaber announced at a news conference Tuesday. He called the ideas "low-hanging fruit" as his teams of advisers work out more ambitious changes.

Kitzhaber says the energy dollars will create about 20 new jobs. He expects to have about $70 million available by summer to retrofit schools once their needs are determined. The money would come from a nine-year-old law that takes 3 percent of energy revenue from the state's two largest utilities for school projects.

The money should be directed to schools dispersed throughout the state to maximize the impact, Kitzhaber said.

"We want to be very strategic to get the biggest bang for his buck," he said.

Kitzhaber also said he intends to set regular meetings with key business leaders, in part to send the message that he's serious about job creation and committed to making changes needed to achieve it.

The governor's plan calls for working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure woody biomass isn't designated a polluting energy source.

The technology generates energy by burning forest thinnings and leftovers from logging, and Kitzhaber sees it as a potential source of green energy jobs in rural communities that have struggled with unemployment since losing timber jobs.

Kitzhaber also wants to include a preference for biomass boilers in his school weatherization plans.

His other proposals call for merging two job-training programs and preparing to ramp them up and funding the Oregon Innovation Council's efforts to support research that leads to new jobs.

The governor said he's willing to study the environmental impact of allowing the removal and storage of some water from the Columbia River during high-flow periods in the summer. Such withdrawals are currently banned in order to protect fish habitat, and environmental groups have opposed a change.

Kitzhaber's announcement came barely 24 hours after he took the oath of office pledging to focus on creating new jobs and raising per capita income — and not ignoring rural areas or minority communities in pursuit of jobs in metro Portland.

"I will use the full power of the governor's office to make this aggressive goal a reality," Kitzhaber said. "I want, in fact I expect, to be held accountable by the citizens of Oregon for making significant progress toward that goal during my term."

Oregon's unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in November, the most recent date for which data are available. The number is up from the recession's bottom of 11.6 percent in May and June 2009. Still, it's nearly 1 percentage point worse than the national average.

Kitzhaber's job proposals have drawn heavily from the ideas of the Oregon Business Plan, developed by business and political leaders, which has called for the creation of 25,000 jobs per year over the next decade.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, Oregon's per capita income was about $3,500 below the national average.

Joblessness has been particularly acute in central and southern Oregon. In central Oregon's Crook County, unemployment was 19.2 percent in November. Rural communities have struggled with unemployment since the decline of the once-mighty timber industry.

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