A new business agenda for Oregon

The Oregon Leadership Forum was held again at the beginning of December. It was the fourth, fifth, sixth time, I’ve lost track because they all look the same and they all follow a predictable agenda — one that is designed never to contradict the popular wisdom of Oregon’s entrenched Democrat governors.

When I returned to Oregon in 1997, I joined the Portland Chamber and the Association for Portland Progress (now merged into the Portland Business Alliance) and the Oregon Business Council. As state vice president for a multi-state communications company that was a primary participant in the dramatic changes to a knowledge based economy dependent on high speed communications and rapidly evolving computer capability, I was anxious to participate in what I expected to be an dynamic process in which the business community would describe what it needed in order to grow, expand, and attract new businesses with well paying jobs.

I even embraced a then popular phrase — it wasn’t the number of jobs but rather the quality of jobs that was important.

Then the Portland Chamber announced its priorities for business. They dealt primarily with salmon recovery and increased spending for schools. Nothing was said about taxation or burdensome regulation. But I was the new guy on the block and so I waited. Shortly thereafter, the Portland Business Alliance announced its priorities. They too dealt primarily with salmon recovery and increased spending for schools. Again nothing about taxation or burdensome regulation. And about the same time, the Oregon Business Council announced its priorities — stunningly, they also dealt primarily with salmon recovery and increased spending for schools.

I read through all of the supporting documentation of the various committees leading up to the announcement of these priorities and there was simply no mention of Oregon’s high income taxes, or its treatment of capital gains as ordinary income for state tax purposes, or the devastating impact of the state’s inheritance tax on small businesses and agricultural operations. There was nothing that discussed Oregon’s restrictive land use system or the extraordinary delays and burdensome regulations imposed at all levels of government. I was astounded that a group of business leaders could ignore the obvious.

But I soon learned the ways of these business groups. You see, 1998 was a gubernatorial election year. Gov. John Kitzhaber was running for re-election and his priorities were — you guessed it — salmon recovery and more money for schools.

Ten years have passed and nothing has changed. Oh yes, the priorities have changed but the process has remained the same. This year the priorities are sustainable growth and global warming. Not surprisingly, those are the priorities of Gov. Kulongoski. (The governor may have thrown this group of business leaders a curve, however, because he has lately begun to advocate increased spending for transportation and so I expect that, in short order, all of these business groups will happily endorse an increase in fuel taxes to support a new, aggressive program to “fix” Oregon’s bridges and roads (and light rail).

Still there is no mention of Oregon’s burdensome income tax. Still there is no mention of the capital gains tax, the inheritance tax, even the capture of the business “kicker” by the big spenders. Nothing about the land use system that has now reverted to an even bigger mess with the passage of Measure 49. And still nothing about regulations, the double-digit growth in government spending, or the burgeoning power of the public employee unions.

The business leaders don’t like to talk publicly about these problems — they might look reactionary. Rather they talk about problems that are popular with the cocktail and brie cheese set in Portland’s West Hills. They embrace the problems that they cannot solve — are not expected to solve — but will ensure that they will be invited to the next meeting, the next political gathering or the next photo op with the governor. And when the real problems effect their bottom line, they still don’t talk about them, they just leave. Businesses like Freightliner, Louisiana Pacific, and on and on and on.

And even those businesses who stay watch their executives leave upon retirement — moving across the river or other destination to avoid Oregon’s high income taxes and the capital gains tax on their stock conversions.

No, the business community doesn’t talk about Oregon’s real business problems, but they exist and they will never be addressed until these business leaders speak up.