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Jobs Watch: Learning from the numbers

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Ever since I was a kid calculating my batting average in between pitches, I’ve always loved numbers. I relish a fresh stack of statistics, and that’s exactly what we have between the new jobs figures and the election results. Are there lessons to be learned from these numbers? I believe there are.

The first number worth thinking about is 3,900. That’s how many jobs Oregon gained, seasonally adjusted from March to April. That’s the biggest jobs boost in two and a half years and a sign that the recovery is real.

But the second number, 1,000, tempers my optimism. That’s how many of those new jobs were temporary government positions for the 2010 U.S. Census. They won’t last for long. Will private sector jobs open up to replace these short-term positions?

Possibly. The private sector also bounced back powerfully in April, adding 1,100 jobs. It was the first month of private sector job gains since March 2008.

At the risk of seeming somewhat schizophrenic, I also feel compelled to mention the number 193,000. That’s how many Oregonians are still relying on unemployment benefits. The state is paying out $60 million per week to help the jobless. And as the Oregonian’s Michelle Cole recently reported, a record 701,882 people statewide are relying on food stamps to eat.

Which brings us to the state, and the looming number of $2.5 billion. That’s the projected budget shortfall for the next biennium.

Which candidate for governor is best prepared to tackle that shortfall? Republican voters this week chose ex-basketball player Chris Dudley over entrepreneur Allen Alley, by a margin of 8%. Democrats went with John Kitzhaber in a landslide over Bill Bradbury, by a margin of 36%.

Those results would seem to indicate that name recognition (combined with fund-raising) has trumped radical change in Oregon, contrary to the widely held belief that voters are mad as hell and won’t take any more. Ted Wheeler played the role of the moderate in his showdown with pro-reform Rick Metsger in the Democratic primary for treasurer and won easily, 65% to 35%. Incumbents from Susan Castillo to Jeff Cogen, Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish also kept their jobs. Republican state reps Bob Jenson of Pendleton and Greg Smith of Heppner won re-election, despite having infuriated Republican activists by supporting tax increases. Jenson won with 53% of the vote; Smith won with 62%.

But the status quo idea falls apart when you factor in the numbers from Washington County and Metro. Republican small business owner Andy Duyck powered to victory as Washington County’s new commission chairman, winning over 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff. And staunchly pro-business former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes was the top vote-getter in a three-way race for Metro president, edging out conservationist Bob Stacey by 2%. This is the first time in memory that a candidate for Metro president led the pack on a pro-business, pro-jobs platform.

Blend in strong showings from Republicans Jim Huffman, Rob Cornilles and Scott Bruun and the notion that voters are content with things as they are crumbles further. Huffman is going to make Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden work harder than he has in a long time to win re-election.  Cornilles and Bruun are also set to stage tough runs against two Democratic incumbents in the U.S. Congress, David Wu and Kurt Schrader. All three stand to benefit from support from the Republican Party, as does Dudley.

What do you get when you add it all up? Clearly the numbers paint a complicated picture. The economy is recovering, but Oregonians are struggling. The state is in terrible fiscal shape — yet voters are going with the status quo. Or rather, they are going with the status quo in some areas but not in others. It will be interesting to see how the numbers evolve between now and November.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.

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