Oregon Pushing For Electric Car Boom

Two proposals are working their way through the Oregon Legislature to help boost alternative-fuel vehicle production in the state and encourage car buyers to consider electric cars.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski took off his jacket and handed it to a staffer as he slid behind the wheel of Nissan's electric vehicle prototype. It was a boxy thing, painted black and white. The real car, Nissan officials assured onlookers more than once, would be more aerodynamic.

Kulongoski turned to the reporters and guests outside. "You can't hear it, but this is started already."

With that, he was off, shooting once, then twice, through a makeshift track of orange cones set up at the Port of Portland.

The governor had already done this once before in very nearly the same vehicle late last year during his trade mission to Asia. Neither the governor nor Nissan had any new announcements this week during the demonstration of the prototype.

It was, more or less, a photo op with big ambitions: Persuade Oregonians to embrace the electric car just as they have the hybrid.

"This is the future of Oregon's economy and it is the right path for Oregon's environment," Kulongoski said.

In the meantime, a pair of proposals are working their way through the Oregon Legislature to help smooth that path to the future.

The first would give Oregonians a tax credit if they purchase an electric-only vehicle assembled in Oregon. The bill is still getting worked over, but an amendment would put the tax credit's cap at $5,000. The second bill would cover the other side of the equation by adding alternate-fuel vehicle manufacturers to a list of businesses eligible for state aid.

Kulongoski has thrown his weight behind both proposals. As he sees it, they would not only encourage buyers to take a closer look at more eco-friendly cars, but they might very well draw new industry to Oregon.

"This is just the beginning," he said at the Nissan test drive. "I want to see these cars up and down Interstate 5 and in cities across the state."

It's a goal that most legislators can get behind. But even though a healthier environment is an easy sell, tax credits are prone to a little more resistance during a recession.

State Rep. Cliff Bentz, an Ontario Republican, often approaches legislation by carefully counting the numbers.

Bentz is one of 10 lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee. At a recent hearing on the consumer tax credit plan, he was trying to figure out just how much the whole thing might cost the state. No one was quite sure.

"We have to be constantly aware of cost because the budget is challenged right now. The economy is challenged right now," Bentz said later from his office. "We ought to have some idea how much of an investment we're planning on making."

There's also the nagging feeling that Oregon might be betting on the wrong horse, or that it may be a better bet a few years down the road.

Bentz compares the push to make ethanol an alternative fuel and all the federal subsidies that have been poured into those ventures, only to run into problems such as decreased fuel efficiency and increased food prices driven by the conversion of crops to fuel production.

"Any time you get ahead of the market, you run the risk that you're wrong, that the incentives that you're giving to the electric car folks might be ahead of their time," he said.

The governor, however, tends to think this is the perfect time to begin enhancing Oregon's already-green reputation.

"We are one of the leading states in the nation," said Anna Richter Taylor, a spokeswoman for the governor. "The governor truly believes this is the future. ... The demand is only going to grow."

Just one day after the governor had taken Nissan's electric car for a spin, he was back on the stump, this time outside Portland's World Trade Center promoting Think, an electric vehicle manufacturer based in Norway.

Their prototype was a scrunched two-seater with a red plastic body. Where you might expect a gas cap, there was an electric plug, sipping energy from one of Portland General Electric's few charging stations.

Again, Kulongoski removed his jacket, handed it off, and slid behind the wheel.

After he had finished his downtown circuit, he got behind a jumble of microphones. "I've just taken a ride in it and it does make you 'Think,'" he said. "Because it's the future."

If the Nissan test drive was about attracting consumers, the Think test drive was about attracting manufacturers. He pointed to the legislation that would give companies like Think a little government help. "Together these are part of a long-term economic development strategy," he said.

How would Oregonians know if the strategy was working?

Kulongoski laughed. The answer, for him anyway, was an obvious one. "When you see more and more electric cars on the road, you'll know that we've got there."

But it might not be so simple.

As Robert Whelan, an economist with ECONorthwest, pointed out, government help cuts both ways, no matter the credit. For every $1 million the state invests he estimates that 12 people lose their jobs, either because of increased taxes or reduced government programs.

"I understand where he's coming from," Whelan said, referring to the governor. "But it's a bad thing for the state to pop money into, and effectively bribe people into coming here."

Oregon is an unlikely place for big-time car manufacturers, even the electric sort, and even with its green reputation. Geographically, the state is too far from suppliers, Whelan said. "No place on the West Coast is a logical place for a car manufacturer."

What's more, he said, the things that Oregon can offer manufacturers, such as tax credits and the Freightliner heavy truck factory in Portland that Daimler Trucks North America is closing, ultimately lose their draw, and the companies leave.

"Government is terrible at picking winners and guessing what the future is going to bring. That's not their job," Whelan said. "There's a lot of chasing rainbows."

Kulongoski's office, though, says that's not the point. "The governor is not looking to make Oregon the next Detroit," Richter Taylor said. It's more about the trickle-down effect of cementing Oregon's green reputation, about attracting "the kind of companies we want," she said.

And so it's with that in mind that in less than two weeks, the governor will be back at it again. On April 22 -- Earth Day -- he'll be test driving a Mitsubishi electric model.

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