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Originally published March 25, 2010 at 4:11 PM | Page modified March 25, 2010 at 4:38 PM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Idaho won one company Gov. Gregoire let get away

Gov. Chris Gregoire says Idaho has nothing on Washington when it comes to supporting business. But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter lassoed one company's expansion out from under Gregoire's nose because of her political indolence, writes editorial columnist Kate Riley

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Gov. Chris Gregoire took umbrage at the audacious overture her Idaho counterpart made recently to Washington businesses, inviting them to pick up and move across the border. In a news conference, she feistily asserted Idaho has nothing on Washington.

But just two years ago, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter easily lassoed a $3 billion plant that would have brought as many as 400 permanent jobs to the Tri-City area in Southeastern Washington — right out from under Gregoire's nose. People close to the deal said the project was Washington's to lose — and place the blame squarely on Gregoire.

A former congressman, Otter wears a cowboy hat in his Web site's official photo, looking every bit the rootin'-tootin'-business-recruitin' champion he suggests in his "Love letter to our neighbors: Idaho is open for your business." He notes Oregon raised taxes on businesses and that the Washington Legislature is poised to do the same.

Come to the Gem state, he invites, offering "a business-friendly State government."

A bristling Gregoire ticked off several of Idaho's disadvantages: a corporate income tax of 7.6 percent, a sales tax of 6 percent and a personal income tax ranging from 1.6 to 7.8 percent. She trotted out Washington's dog-eared Forbes magazine rating of 2nd best state to do business and noted that Idaho's ranking fell from seventh to 11th. As for Washington's regulatory environment, the state has an admirable fifth-place ranking while Idaho's languishes around 35th.

That's all true.

But Gregoire let a big one get away. The company was the nuclear giant Areva and the project was a uranium-enrichment plant that prepares uranium to be made into nuclear fuel. It would have complemented Areva's existing Tri-City fuel-fabrication plant, which provides fuel to 25 percent of the nation's 104 electricity-producing reactors.

The new Areva plant would have helped further stabilize the Tri-Cities' economic future because it is unrelated to Hanford's nuclear-cleanup project, which is subject to congressional spending whims.

While Otter personally engaged with Areva executives, Gregoire ignored pleas over months from community and state leaders to get directly involved. U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Congressman Doc Hastings strongly supported the project.

Another complicating factor for the governor? It was an election year, and she was facing a rematch with Dino Rossi, whom she barely beat in 2004.

When Areva announced its plans to build in Idaho Falls in May 2008, Tri-City leaders were stunned at the governor's political indolence. A Tri-City Herald editorial began, "The governor blew it."

A month later, the Herald published a stunning investigation into the governor's handling of the situation after obtaining internal e-mails confirming her studied aversion to personal involvement. (She canceled one call to Areva and waited seven months to call just as the company was nearing a final decision.)

The Herald's investigative story recounted e-mails about responses to potential phone calls for or against Areva. An early draft said that Gregoire believed an "abundant, affordable, environmentally responsible and diverse energy supply is imperative to Washington's economic and environmental health." An adviser directed the reference to "diverse energy sources" be dropped, saying, "She is not committed to a nuclear future."

I thought about the governor's performance on Areva this month after Otter's overture and again when she met with President Obama and applauded his commitment to re-energizing the U.S. nuclear industry, starting with loan guarantees for nuclear plants. A Monday Gallup poll shows a record high 62 percent of Americans favor nuclear energy.

The heat of the election fades, the governor rubs elbows with a pronuclear president and suddenly has an epiphany — nuclear energy should be part of the mix. Because of climate change, she says, "... Options that were off the table now are on the table."

It's about time, governor.

But too late to be much comfort to the Tri-Cities, which is without the $30 million payroll Idaho Falls will enjoy, or to a company that, by many accounts, was keen on choosing Washington.

Old Butch whupped you good on that one.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

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