Bill Bradbury and John Kitzhaber are Oregon leaders who know the state bureaucracy inside and out. Yet they are both running for governor on a platform of transformative change and fresh ideas. What are their ideas on the subject of restoring Oregon’s sickly economy to health?
Bradbury and Kitzhaber made their strongest pitches to the business community Tuesday afternoon at a forum sponsored by the Oregon Business Association, the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, the Portland Business Alliance and the Software Association of Oregon. Both men spoke with the poise and confidence you would expect from savvy veterans seeking to win key votes, and to their credit they did offer some compelling original ideas. Whether these ideas can become tangible programs producing practical results is a different matter.
Bradbury, who served with the state Legislature for 14 years before becoming Secretary of State and is chairman of the Oregon Sustainability Board, wants to create a new bank to get some money flowing through the state economy. He’s calling it the Bank of Oregon, and from his description it sounds like, well, a state-run bank. “We all pay a lot of taxes in this state, and fees, that go into the State Treasury,” he told the crowd Tuesday. “You can create a bank out of that and partner with community banks to fund small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
Something tells me a state-run bank would be more complicated to set up and run than he’s making it sound, and I would be curious to hear from bankers who have opinions on the potential merits or pitfalls of a Bank of Oregon.
Another specific idea Bradbury mentioned during the forum was to follow up Oregon’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) with an Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The RPS has utilities scrambling to figure out how in the world they are going to generate the required 20% of their power supply using wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy by 2020. That policy has led to innovation and development, especially in the wind and solar power businesses. It will also undoubtedly result in higher electricity rates for homes and factories.
Bradbury’s take on an Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, which would similarly require efficiency upgrades for buildings, is that it would create a flood of jobs and build on Oregon’s strengths in green building and design.
Bradbury also supports reforming Oregon’s kicker law to build up rainy day funds rather than sending refunds to tax payers. So does Kitzhaber. But that may be easier mentioned than reformed. Attempts to dump the kicker during the latest legislative session went nowhere.
Bradbury also has strong feelings about boosting state revenues by doing a better job of collecting taxes. “We could raise $1.2 billion dollars if we just enforced existing tax law,” he said. He didn’t expand on what he meant by that at the forum. He also steered attendees to his website to see his eight-point plan for reviving the state economy, but when I checked out his website this morning I didn't see the plan.
Kitzhaber pointed out twice during Tuesday’s forum that he balanced or produced eight separate budgets over his two terms as governor from 1994-2002. Of course, that was a better era for Oregon than our current one, where prosperity has been replaced by stagnation, job loss and increasingly divisive arguments between political leaders and the business community. Kitzhaber, who was criticized for comments during his previous tenure describing Oregon as “ungovernable,” has assumed a more centrist posture with his current campaign. Part of that has involved reaching out to a business community that has not always supported him in the past, in the interests of healing what he called “deep divisions between people who ultimately need each other.”
“The first thing we need to do is get Oregon back to work,” Kitzhaber said in response to a question about addressing the state’s looming $2.5 billion shortfall. In his view, the biggest job creation opportunity we have is in “large, community scale weatherization projects,” which would create high-paying trade jobs while cutting costs for both government and businesses over the long term. That’s an idea that’s been around for a while, but painfully slow to translate into jobs in Oregon.
Kitzhaber also supports the use of funds from the Oregon Education Investment Board to seed entrepreneurial efforts throughout the state, especially given the lingering difficulty for start-ups to find capital.
But as anyone who has seen Kitzhaber speak over the past few years knows, his central message is that it is time to redesign systems that were built with the needs of previous generations in mind and transform them into something more in step with the modern world. The three systems he is most anxious to change are education, health care and public finance.
In the area of education, he is proposing a “single transparent budget where funding is based on performance.” That would mean finding the schools that underperforming, making a diagnosis to define the problem, then bringing in funding to address the problem.” Seems to make sense, but it’s not how things are done currently.
In regards to health care, it would be hard to find a leader with more expertise than Kitzhaber. He has long argued persuasively that proactive care rather than after-the-fact hospitalization will save businesses, hospitals and government huge sums of money while producing better outcomes.
Health care reform is unlikely to prove any simpler at a state level than it has been nationally, but Kitzhaber’s message is that previous generations have risen to similar challenges and that’s how progress is made. “This is not a time for the timid,” he said as he spoke of the unfortunate situation Oregon finds itself in.
The good news is that both Democratic contenders seem to be taking the state's economic challenge seriously and are trying to come up with innovative measures to improve the situation. We’ll also report on what ideas their Republican challengers Chris Dudley and Allen Alley have to offer when they present to the business community on April 27 at the MAC club.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business Magazine.