Enough words, time for action

Oregon Business Plan must create more than just another document

The Oregon Leadership Summit will convene in Portland on Monday with a goal of developing a business plan for the state that's more than empty rhetoric. After 10 years of crafting the annual Oregon Business Plan, it's time for the work to move its focus from developing strategies to creating jobs. And there are some encouraging signs it will do that, if the state's political leaders are willing to participate.

The Leadership Summit was created in 2002 by Oregon's senior Sen. Ron Wyden, who got business leaders, political leaders and other state power brokers in the same room, with a goal of speaking with one voice about how to move Oregon forward economically.

The summit and its accompanying Oregon Business Plan have achieved some successes, perhaps most notably in pulling off the trick of getting so many major players in the same room. It's had a hand in other successes, including:

  • Oregon's push to make sustainability more than a buzzword by focusing on sustainable energy, green technology, "buy local" initiatives and more.
  • Support for then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski's transportation investment effort, which has shored up business-critical highway and rail systems all over the state.
  • Support for health care reform and specifically the idea of creating health insurance exchanges.
  • Gov. John Kitzhaber's push to redesign the delivery of education to focus more on students' needs than on protecting the status quo of the various systems.

But it's unlikely Leadership Summit members are sitting back, satisfied with their results. Oregon's economy continues to lag behind the nation's and Oregon's rural economy lags even further behind that.

While there are scattered success stories, there is little evidence to suggest that the state's economic development efforts have been particularly effective. The state has made encouraging connections in Asia, but the payoff is still largely unknown. It has, frankly, an abysmal record, compared with neighboring states, of attracting new businesses.

There's no shortage of California companies interested in relocating to escape that state's over-the-top regulatory system. But those companies are fleeing to Arizona, Nevada — even Idaho — while next-door neighbor Oregon is often jilted.

Business leaders say there are numerous reasons for that. Oregon's tax structure lacks a sales tax while it punishes business owners with a stiff income tax. Oregon's reputation still takes a hit from the "visit but don't stay" message that was inaccurately portrayed 40-plus years ago. Economic development gets the leftovers in the state budget; the state lottery pie that was cooked up to fund economic development has been split into many pieces, resulting in state support that is not much different in actual dollars than it was three decades ago.

Then there's the state Legislature, which has made too little headway in reducing the bureaucracy that businesses face while meddling in economic development efforts by trying to micromanage funding to benefit its home districts.

The Oregon Business Plan is a daunting list of projects (check them out at www.oregonbusinessplan.org/Initiatives.aspx), all important in their own way but far too expansive to effectively take on at the same time.

The Leadership Summit has tentatively set three priorities: education overhaul, reforming the budget-draining Public Employee Pension System and building a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. Achieving those objectives would be major accomplishments that would pay off for Oregon for decades to come. But, aside from the bridge-building plan, they won't have the immediate job impact that the state so desperately needs.

We would encourage one additional priority: Find a way to free up a steady supply of timber, in part by enlisting more than lip service from the governor's office and Portland-area legislators. That would help many rural areas, including ports and communities with secondary wood-products manufacturing. It would show that the Oregon Leadership Summit and the Oregon Business Plan are capable of creating more than just documents, that they're capable of creating jobs.

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