The pressing issue of job creation in Central Oregon was aired recently as a delegation of state representatives with local ties met with business leaders to discuss issues and challenges concerning employment growth.
Rep. Jason Conger, Rep. Mike McLane and Rep. Gene Whisnant joined an economic jobs summit organized by the Bend Chamber as part of its ongoing Town Hall Forum series to hear local feedback on current challenges in relation to governmental policy.
Whisnant acknowledged the region was facing difficulties as the weakest economic recovery since World War II had seen its unemployment rate slump to around 11 per cent, exceeding the national average of around 8.3 percent for 2012.
He said: “This is a significant number of our friends and families that are in trouble.
“We continue to face challenges in helping business grow, including over-regulation, labor laws and high taxes. We have tried to push legislation to tackle issues such as rising healthcare expenses and the increasing PERS burden, but sometimes the initiative needs to come from the community in terms of citizens being vocal on the issue.”
Conger pointed to some successes regarding employment incentives in the last legislative session, including his involvement in reconnecting state and federal tax codes, and in passage of a bill renewing and expanding Enterprise Zone status across a larger swathe of Central Oregon, “But,” he added, “we all know a lot more can be done, particularly in Central Oregon.
“The best ideas often come from the people actually operating businesses regarding the best way to grow and succeed, and we want to take that message back to translate into action.
“Part of the challenge in the legislature is that there often does not seem to be the same level of urgency from the urban area delegation regarding more rural areas.
“We are constantly saying we need to be working more on the economic front, but the Portland metro area has a different perspective as it is perhaps three to four per cent off 2008 job levels and has been recovering, whereas our area for example is some 10 per cent off.
“We need to bring their attention into sharper focus as I am painfully aware this is not just a statistic, there is a profound human cost involved – thousands of people in Oregon are unable to support their families and many young people are unable to find jobs.”
McLane, whose district encompasses one of the largest footprints, including an area from Crook County to Klamath Falls, said the state needed to do a better job of budgeting regarding natural resource slanted areas and called for “shifting the equilibrium back towards balance”, particularly in issues such as forest service management and the ability to log sustainably.
He also pointed to budget anomalies such as the Portland area spending some $2 million on billboard advertising promoting that if you drive less you save more, at the same time as cutbacks were implemented affecting transportation for seniors in rural areas. He successfully lobbied for a reduction in the ad campaign and a transfer of the savings to rural initiatives.
When an audience member also pointed out that a wind farm permit application in Washington state entailed a four inch pile of documentation and six month process to approval, while a similar plan for Eastern Oregon involved a four foot heap of paperwork and to date two year process still ongoing, with rising associated costs – partly due to protracted discussions with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – McLane said: “Anecdotes are very powerful. If you have stories of friends, colleagues, or your own horror story of how you were trying to get something done and government failed you, these are very effective weapons.
“We need stories to use to embarrass the regulatory apparatus that wants to remain king. Jobs should be our number one priority.”
All the delegates also agreed that pushing forward the campaign for Oregon State University-Cascades campus expansion towards a full four-year status would be a huge economic boost to the area, outlining what they and the local population could do to propel the case.
McLane said: “The funding of $16 million to help purchase property will be critical if not necessary to getting the four year university. The Central Oregon delegation is working with other state representatives to work cohesively.
“It will be a two-prong approach. One is through the budget and the other is twisting arms to get support from colleagues in other areas of Oregon. Jason is the point guy to make this happen. Gene and I are focused on the budgets. We have great support with the governor right now – the wild cards will be the Senate.”
Whisnant added: “This is a great thing for the community. The governor’s 40-40-20 program should help (in reference to Gov. Kitzhaber’s goal that by 2025, Oregon will: ensure that 40 percent of adults will have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher;
40 percent of adults will have earned an associate degree or post-secondary credential, and 20 percent of adults will have earned a high school diploma, modified high school diploma or the equivalent of a high school diploma).
“Corvallis can’t grow any more space wise, and we need to have a new facility. It all comes down to money. The Chamber needs to be in Salem with boots on the ground talking this through with leadership and other legislators.
“Members need to be at the door of the opposition because it makes a big difference when you have citizens involved that are in a community leadership position.”
Conger commented: “I would say the momentum that has been achieved on this project so far feels very strong. Our job is to go back to Salem and make sure that money for purchasing the space necessary is available for teaching the freshman class of 2015.
“In addition, the outpouring of financial and community support for OSU is critical and necessary because it shows how much sense it makes for the state to invest in higher education in Central Oregon. We do need to continue the fight.”
In response to a question on whether dismantling the state land use process, or at least limiting the amount of appeals, may help improve the economy, Whisnant said: “Loser pays is one way to stop this. The problem with the appeals process is that people go broke fighting to get anything done.
“There is a land use pilot project going on right now in three different counties, which give those regions more control of their land use. If that’s successful, Central Oregon is next on the list to try the process. This is our best chance and I agree we do need to change the land appeal process.”
Conger added: “We are working on a bill to limit appeal rights. There will be plenty of opportunities to work on bills like this, but what we need to be successful is a balanced legislature.
“We need support from outside of Salem to help drive this message home. Hopefully we can make the case and make some progress in 2013.”