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|Wednesday, September 01, 2010|
How can we possibly bring down the costs of health care? What about the tax burden on small businesses? The patent backlog? The national debt? The lack of credit for growing businesses and startups? And what about climate change? When will we get serious about that? And how about math and science education? How can we improve that before the nation loses its edge?
Those were just some of the hard questions directed at freshman Senator Jeff Merkley this morning at a “fireside chat” organized by the Software Association of Oregon at the Multnomah Athletic Club.
Merkley, who defeated incumbent Gordon Smith with extremely limited business support and found his way onto the finance committee “by fluke” in his words, has been a busy guy in the nation’s capitol. He recently took on Wall Street titans Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley with a proposal to separate investment powerhouses from FDIC-insured commercial banks. The hotly disputed “Merkley-Levin amendment” (crafted with Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan) eventually became part of the financial reform bill that passed into law.
Merkley is also working on a small business package that would boost SBA lending and cut capital gains taxes. It remains to be seen whether that measure will pass along with financial reform or fail along with other Merkley-backed policies such as an energy bill tackling climate change and a public option for health care reform.
To his credit, Merkley played the role of the listener quite convincingly this morning. Rather than offering answers, he asked the executives in attendance for anecdotes, suggestions and ideas. He heard from business owners struggling with a rising tax burden and the ongoing clampdown on credit. Bob Gregg, the CEO of Portland-based ID Experts, told the senator about his company’s difficulties getting a loan after their bank went under. ID Experts is the 32nd fastest-growing company in the nation, but when Gregg’s team tried to move their line of credit over to a new bank, the suggestion they got was to put up their private residences as collateral. “We’re growing without a loan, and we’d be growing a lot faster if we had a loan,” said Gregg.
As for answering the hard questions referenced above, here are a few of the ideas Merkley expressed this morning:
On the ballooning national debt: Merkley thinks the best approach is to strike a balance between the extreme examples of Greece (too much debt) and Japan (not enough stimulus). He supports a three-year “do no harm” approach toward coaxing the economy back to health through public investment, followed by a concerted push to return to the budget surpluses the nation enjoyed less than a decade ago.
On the failed energy bill: Merkley argues that even without carbon laws the economy needs to shift towards renewable energy and electric vehicles and hybrids. That transition will create huge opportunities for innovative Oregon companies, he says.
On health care costs: Having lost the battle for a public option, Merkley says health care costs can still be cut through better information technology and through revisiting the anachronistic exemption of the health care industry from anti-trust regulations.
On education: Merkley supports moving away from the limitations of No Child Left Behind (which strongly emphasizes standardized tests), while expanding the number of magnet programs for math and science.
Given his lack of past backing from the business community, Merkley seemed to enjoy the warm reception he got from software executives, who have been faring better than most during these turbulent times. He gave the impression that he’s open to ideas and that he enjoys a challenge, even if the challenge proves impossible politically.
It’s a good thing he appreciates a challenge, because the enduring gridlock in the nation’s capital is unlikely to ease anytime soon. I would expect Merkley to be as busy over the next two years as he has been over the past two years.
Whether he will accomplish anything of relevance remains to be seen.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business.
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