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Once-obscure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for area's economy

The political struggle in Moses Lake over the cost and management of its irrigation district is a microcosm of the conflict going on in cities, towns and taxing districts across the country between supporters of growth and progress, and those who seek to constrain government and contain spending

 

But because major companies have begun to focus attention on the area due to things like transportation access, cheap electric rates and low property costs, economic development opportunities are now on the minds of community leaders. Thus the obscure political contest has taken on new importance for the region's 45,000 residents.

 

The climax of the battle for the political affections of the owners of the 9,000 parcels of property in the Moses Lake Irrigation and Reclamation District has become, for the past couple of years, the ironically timed Christmas-season election for a seat on the district's three-member board.

 

The annual mid-December election had drawn little attention, despite the importance of the district's work in the clean-up of the 6,500-acre lake, until a year ago when two prominent local political types ran against each other to claim an open seat.

 

Ron Covey, 64, Moses Lake city councilman for 14 years, including six as mayor, sought to fill the seat to ensure continuation of the district's dredging and environmental clean-up, and the $1 per $1,000 property tax to fund the irrigation district's $1.5 million annual budget. Covey is also the current president of the Grant County Economic Development Council.

 

Mick Hansen, 71, a former Democratic state representative whose uncle and aunt were both state senators from the region, sought the board seat, arguing that the property-tax could be cut in half and questioned the importance of some of the clean-up projects.

 

The outcome of the race was important to the future of the district because if Covey won, as he did, barely, in a race where the approximately 11,000 votes cast represented a turnout about 10 times the norm, it would ensure a 2-1 majority supportive of current district funding and direction.

 

The election-night results gave Covey a 61-39 percent edge. But that majority had shrunk to 2 percent by the time absentee ballots, assumed to have been largely retirees wintering elsewhere or elderly residents, were counted.

 

A Hansen victory would have created a board majority focused on a hard look at both the board's direction and the operations of its full-time director, hired in 2007, and the staff.

Hansen is running again this year, challenging an incumbent board member.

 

The evidence of no love lost between Covey and Hansen was Columbia Basin Herald business reporter Lynne Lynch's quote of Covey during an appearance in last year's race, when he said he would not "cut the budget and gut the lake." He also suggested Hansen would bring "arrogant, ill-conceived good ole boy ideas."

 

The district's activities focus on the environmental challenges the lake has faced. More than 50,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulation annually have clogged channels on the lake, degraded water quality and led to excess plant growth, which district clean-up and dredging efforts have sought to counteract.

 

Now Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County have begun to attract economic-development attention from after almost half a century of struggling to survive and grow following the early '60s closure of Larson Air Force Base, which had been the justification for the community's existence.

 

And that increased attention has brought considerable focus on the lake itself as part of the appeal of the area to real and prospective new residents and businesses.

 

The new-found attention has included BMW, lured to Moses Lake by low-cost and sustainable power, to create a new plant in a joint venture with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers where parts for the automaker's new high-tech electric car will be manufactured. Plus nearby Quincy has attracted datacenter developments, including Microsoft's new, fully modular center, as well as other like Yahoo and Sabey Corp.

 

Inexpensive power is a key lure. But former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, who has both business and non-profit involvements in the Moses Lake area, sees "a lot of positive business factors at work" in the area,

 

"From foreign-trade zone, to all modes of transportation, and low electric rates, relatively low property costs, good workforce and good regulatory climate in the local government, there's real economy-development appeal at work there," Lowry said, adding that the lake itself is a vital aspect of the region's appeal.

 

Pat Jones, new executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, puts it this way: "The lake is an important part of the community at a lot of different levels."

 

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Crowd funding for start-up companies is an idea that concerns angel investors

A year ago Congress had to be talked out of doubling the amount of wealth required for individuals to invest in start-up companies. Now the lawmakers are considering the idea of removing basically all qualifications so that crowds of small investors might provide capital for entrepreneurial ventures.

 

What has stirred support among lawmakers and others for using the Internet and social media for crowd-fund investing is the challenge faced by many start-up companies to find funding in this struggling economy and the promise of the jobs such companies could create.

 

It was angel-investor groups who convinced Congress of the potential disaster for start-up companies in a provision that, for a time, was included in the so-called Dodd-Frank bill passed last year. The provision would have doubled the assets required for an investor to be "qualified."

 

It wasn't that difficult to make the obvious case to lawmakers to kill that section before a vote on the Dodd-Frank bill, since most lawmakers hadn't even been aware it was in the bill.

 

Now angel-group leaders are raising an alarm about the implications of the crowd-funding idea. But they may face a greater challenge because of the arguments of supporters, which include not just key lawmakers but the Obama Administration as well.

 

The proposal, which has already had a hearing in the House, is to allow exemption from SEC registration requirements for those trying to raise up to $5 million. As with a similar effort to tone down requirements for small public companies, the goal is to find new job-creation engines.

 

A high-visibility proponent of crowd-fund investing is an evangelical entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise of Miami, who told a Congressional subcommittee a couple of weeks ago that crowd funding could bring in as much as $500 million and lead to creation of 1.5 million new jobs over the next five years.

 
 

 

"What we are proposing is a jobs initiative that everyone should like since small businesses and entrepreneurs are the long-term engines of our economy," Neise said. "However, they need capital to grow and that has dried up since the 2008 financial meltdown."

 

Comments like that resonate with many, including the Obama Administration.

 

But not everyone likes his plan, specifically leaders of angel-investor groups, a number of whom I traded e-mails with to seek their thoughts. Angels have traditionally been the sources of capital for entrepreneur and start-up companies that need funding beyond what's called the "friends and family" initial source of money.

 

Bill Payne, viewed by many as the dean of angel investors, says "I find Neise's claims laughable," offering statistics that could cause pause if they reach the same ears as those who heard Neise's pitch.

 

Payne noted that Kauffman Foundation statistics suggest that about $100 billion from all sources, angels and VCs and friends and family, flows into start-up companies and they create 3 million new jobs a year.

 

"That computes to $33,333 per job," Payne said. "Now along comes Mr. Neise claiming that his idea would create jobs for $333 each. Are you kidding me?"

 

 


Payne, who has been an angel investor in a number of startups in the Northwest and elsewhere, added: "It's very simple from where I sit: I am not in favor of any investment vehicle that allows unaccredited investors to fund startup companies.  It is very high risk and the invested dollars are totally illiquid." 

 

Tom Simpson, who guided one of the Northwest's most successful venture-capital firms and now oversees a couple of angel-investor groups in Spokane, said it's important for "faster, cheaper and easier processes to attract investors to both young private and public companies."

 
 

 

But he said "any new regulations or processes to reduce the time and cost of raising money still need to provide prospective investors with sufficient product, market and management information, comprehensive financial data and specific risk factors to make an educated, informed investment decision."

 

Villette Nolon, chair of the Seattle-based women-angel group Seraphs and founder of the internet-based business Homesavvi.com, says that "while the intent of this idea is good, the outcomes would be disastrous."

 

"Legitimate businesses who would try this route would be extremely disappointed in the result, as truly sophisticated investors are highly unlikely to fund companies sight unseen, even at low amounts," she said. "That leaves only speculators who would be attracted by the idea of making a quick buck, and who could get very, very burned."

 

Gary Ritner, founder and heads the Seattle-based Puget Sound Venture Club, says the $10,000 proposed as maximum investment by a crowd-source investor "is too small" and the $5 million proposed maximum for the entrepreneurial startup "is too large, and not necessary."

 

But he added "we have to get capital flowing and, in concept, I like the idea of crowd funding."

 

Perhaps the major concern shared by angel investors and others is that a backlash could occur down the road if Congress hears of abuses and horror stories and decides crowd funding was a bad idea and things need to be made tighter to protect investors.

 

The concern is summed up by one who noted that "when the pendulum swings back, lawmakers always have it swing too far."

 

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Support grows for proposals to create jobs by easing some of investor protections

The mounting pressure on Congress and the Obama Administration to find some job-creating ideas to jumpstart the ailing economy is stirring growing interest in a couple of Congressional proposals that would lessen investor protections for the sake of allowing businesses more growth opportunities.

 

One proposal, already filed as a House bill by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-AZ, with the intent of accelerating the growth of younger companies, would suspend for most newly public companies what many view as a costly and troublesome provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

 

Quayle's proposal would allow a much greater number of public companies to opt out of Sarbanes Oxley Section 404, which requires public companies to disclose the scope and adequacy of their internal-controls structure. The measure would raise the current $75 million market-value threshold for reporting to $1 billion.

 

The other proposal would help entrepreneurial and start-up companies, many currently  hamstrung in their ability to attract growth capital, to reach large numbers of investors for limited amounts of money via the internet in what's being called crowd-fund investing.

 

The proposals have come to center stage only in the last couple of weeks. And each has attracted growing support from those who contend the measures are vital to the goal of job creation. And each is also starting to stir opposition from those who question the idea of setting aside shareholder and investor protections.

 

Each proposal merits an in-depth look and thus in this first of two columns we'll examine the discussions surrounding Quayle's bill, the support being gathered for it and the comments of those expressing concerns.

 

Next week's column will focus on the crowd-funding proposal, including a look at those backing it and the concern it is stirring from many angel-investor leaders, particularly those up and down the West Coast.

 

Quayle's bill would allow public companies with market valuations below $1 billion to opt out of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404 for the first 10 years after going public. The original Sarbanes-Oxley Act was amended in last year's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Protection and Consumer Protection Act to create the under-$75 million exemption.

 

Quayle and supporters of his measure, including the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, contend that the costs for complying with the requirements of this section of Sarbanes-Oxley can exceed $1 million for new companies and can cost them up to $20 million in loss of valuation.

 

Quayle's measure is close to a plan outlined by the Kauffman Foundation a few months ago as "a set of non-partisan ideas to jump-start the ailing U.S. economy and increase job creation by accelerating the growth of startups and young businesses."

 

Kauffman, the nation's largest non-profit foundation focused on entrepreneurs, noted that the role high-growth startups play is vital to assure U.S. economic strength.

 

"Virtually all of the growth in U.S. jobs has been driven by the formation of firms less than five years old, and these new firms have been disproportionately responsible for commercializing the cutting-edge innovations that characterize modern life," the Foundation said.

 

"I believe this bill is an important step as we  try to increase the number of companies that go public in the United States," said Robert Litan, Kauffman's vice president for research and policy. "The ability to raise capital in public markets will be essential as new companies create the jobs required to put Americans back to work."

 

One of the most pervasively visible proponents of both lowering the regulatory barriers for newly public companies and the proposal for crowd-fund investing is a Miami, FL, entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise, who has testified before Congress about both. He was co-founder of a company called Flavorx, which added flavors to medicine, that went public and was later sold.

 

In 2006, he was among those decrying what he called the "unintended consequences of Sarbanes-Oxley on small businesses," saying that meeting 404's requirements "ate up 14 percent of our net income."

 

But among those urging caution is former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn E. Turner, who said in an e-mail that contained the subject line "Short Memories:" "Clearly people have forgotten the hundreds of billions in dollars of losses investors suffered during the corporate financial reporting frauds, and the tens of thousands of jobs lost."

 

Neil McReynolds, a corporate-governance consultant in Seattle, said that while the original Sarbanes-Oxley requirements created some real cost and regulatory problems for smaller public companies, the changes brought about by the Dodd-Frank bill corrected some of those.

 

McReynolds, who has been a member of a number of boards of private companies and consulted with boards of public companies, said that while extending the exemption to $75 million cap companies, as Dodd-Frank did, made sense, "extending the exemption to $1 billion companies may be a bit of a stretch." He added that "there's still value in disclosure and internal controls."

 

Sharon Philpott, managing partner of national accounting firm BDO's Seattle practice, agreed, saying her firm supports the positions of the CFA Institute, Center for Quality Audit and the Council of Institutional Investors, who have all urged caution against further exemptions from Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

In the end, success or failure of expanding the exemption for internal controls may hinge on whether the pressure for jobs trumps the pressure to protect shareholders and investors.

 

 

 

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