Other Views: Looking for a game-changer

Oregon needs an economic home run, not bunt singles to climb out of recession

A spate of recent reports has established a consistent theme: The Oregon economy is improving, but not fast enough to provide relief to many of the people bruised by the Great Recession — much less those who were suffering before the financial and housing collapse.

The summary for two of the reports — the Oregon Measure of Economic Activity and the University of Oregon Index of Economic Indicators — concludes: "Overall, the two indicators point to sustained expansion in Oregon and at an average to somewhat above average pace of activity." The most recent revenue forecast from the Oregon Office of Economic analysis offered a similar slow-growth assessment.

If Oregon wants to break out of this rut, the state needs a game-changer. Oregon's periods of greatest economic growth generally have been helped along by some identifiable trend or event that made the state attractive for job creators and job seekers alike.

Tim Duy, director of the Oregon Economic Forum at the University of Oregon, said in-migration often has been part of Oregon's economic equation. Sometimes people came here because of problems elsewhere — California's economic meltdown in the 1990s, for example. Sometimes they were drawn by something positive happening in Oregon. Longtime Oregon economist John Mitchell pointed to the success of Tektronix in early years and the repeal of the unitary tax in 1984, which led several foreign companies to start operations in Oregon, as examples of game-changers. Intel's growth in Washington County is another example.

It's time for Oregon to find the next game-changer. "There is that need for that external force somewhere," Duy said.

Oregon can either wait for that external force to appear or it can be proactive. Many of the ideas currently being discussed would produce incremental change — revamping job training programs or creating new e-commerce zones, for example. Some are almost satirical: Jim Francesconi, a candidate for chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, suggested that he would ask the county's 50 largest employers to add 10 entry-level employees within a year of his election. That likely will be about as effective as asking a teenage boy to clean up his room, pretty please.

So what would it take to kick the economy into a higher gear? A change in federal forest policy, whether the more ambitious plan proposed by three Oregon congressmen or the compromise legislation crafted by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., could do the job. Approval of proposed LNG terminals on the coast would be economic rocket fuel for those communities, at the least. Comprehensive tax reform that produced stable education financing from preschool through college would at least point in the right direction.

Perhaps the best game-changer would be a business plan that currently resides in someone's head or garage. That's why recent efforts to make it easier to create and grow small businesses are important, even if they are incremental. But that should not be an excuse to dodge big, and perhaps risky, ideas that could pay immediate dividends.

Oregonians expect their leaders to do more than just wait for California to fall apart again.

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