Governor: Oregon Works for Small Businesses
“We’ve made a tremendous investment in this administration in trying to grow Oregon’s economy. Unemployment is down from 8.6% to about 5.5%. We’ve created over 200,000 new jobs. We have the fifth fastest growing economy of any state in the country.”
Addressing an audience of small business owners and entrepreneurs, Gov. Ted Kulongoski highlighted Oregon’s economic recovery and emphasized that there’s plenty of good news for businesses across the state.
More than 100 business leaders from various industries attended the event held at The Benson Hotel. The event was organized by the Oregon Small Business for Responsible Leadership, a nonpartisan progressive advocacy group for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Kulongoski, who was elected Governor in 2002, faces Republican challenger Ron Saxton in this year’s November elections.
Creating a business-friendly environment is a priority for Oregon, and much effort has been made to ensure that the state works efficiently and effectively in meeting the needs of small business owners. “We looked at what we can do to streamline the permitting process and reduce the paperwork. There’s a report by the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs that shows we’ve done quite well. We’ve saved the state $50 million with the reforms that we put in. We’ve taken some 250,000 pages out of the regulatory process in state government,” he said.
To ensure alignment with the requirements of the business community called for improvements of government services. Under Kulongoski’s leadership, the state has adopted and is in the process of implementing common technology platform that consolidates the IT needs of various agencies. “We have been working very, very hard and continue to make the state government work more efficiently. I’m not going to tell you that it was easy – because we not only have to deal with employees and unions – but I also had to deal with people who have grown accustomed to doing it their way to actually see that there’s another way to work. For those of you in business, you’ve done this yourself, and you know how hard it is.”
Improving business services also necessitated the need to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure. Kulongoski is a strong supporter of infrastructure projects because not only do they improve business prospects for the state, they also have a positive effect on job creation. During the first legislative session of his administration, the state invested about $2.5 billion in Oregon’s transportation system, in addition to the $2.5 billion the state received from the Federal Highway Reauthorization Act.
“In the next five to six years, Oregon will invest over $5 billion in the largest public works project in the state since we built the interstate highway system in the state. There are opportunities out there for small businesses because we had actually changed the contracting provisions. The Department of Transportation is always trying to find ways to partner with minority, women-owned and small businesses throughout Oregon so they may take advantage of business opportunities.”
In 2005, Kulongoski expand Oregon’s Emerging Small Business Program (the state’s race and gender neutral certification program), increasing the number of ODOT projects designated for businesses owned by minorities, women and/or certified emerging small businesses. The expansion also nearly doubles the time a business may participate in the program, as well as increasing the size of contracts that can be awarded. For the first time, Kulongoski required the state to track the contracts awarded to women and minority-owned businesses through the program to ensure such enterprises are taking advantage of the opportunities available.
To ensure that businesses have access to a highly skilled and well-educated workforce, post-secondary institutions across the state are working to improve facilities and program offerings. The state has invested millions of dollars to enable community colleges and universities to make necessary capital improvements. This is important, Kulongoski said, to address the issue of declining enrollments in state colleges and universities. “When the state does not invest in community colleges and universities, they rely upon tuition to be able to get money for their operating capital. What that ends up doing is pricing an awful lot of students out of the marketplace.”
While a college-educated employee pool is important in supporting the growth of Oregon businesses, nurturing a pool of highly trained workers in the trades is equally important. He cited that only 28% of Oregon residents have a baccalaureate degree or higher.
“In talking with people about education, this is what I’ve learned as your governor. I think that we’re making a big mistake when we lead kids to believe that everyone of them is going to end up in college. About 72% of our kids just here in Oregon are never going to college. We see kids dropping out in their junior and senior years in high school. What message are they getting? What we need to do is to change the message to these kids, that just as much as we need engineers, we need electricians. We need another message to kids about getting skills in the trades. The trades involve honorable, respectable work.”
Oregon has a large presence in the metal manufacturing industry and has a thriving defense industry cluster. To take advantage of future opportunities, education and skills training are critically important. “It takes people that know how to pick up the tools. If we’re going to compete in a global marketplace, we’re not only competing with other countries, we’re also competing with other states. We have to have the best trained and skilled workforce.”
In his talk, Kulongoski also addressed his administration’s efforts at keeping health care costs low through the Healthy Kids Initiative, which seeks to insure all children through age 19. Efforts also are being made to expand coverage of the Oregon Health Plan, to include more adults and children across the state.
“We have more than 600,000 uninsured in the state, but that doesn’t mean they’re not getting health care. They get it—but they access the health care system at the most expensive spot: at the emergency room.” Cost-shifting has caused costs of health care skyrocket for many businesses, large and small.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Beyond health care and education, Kulongoski also provided a vision for the future of Oregon’s economy: one that places the state at the core of an alternative renewable energy revolution. “Reliance on fossil fuels – particularly, the importation of fossil fuels from some of the most unstable places in the world – is not good for America, in terms of economic or its security. This country has to start looking at alternative renewable energy resources. Oregon has this great potential to be a national leader in this area.”
He cited several companies and research facilities that are making strides in wind power, hydroelectric systems and fuel cell technology. “The whole area of alternative renewable energy makes for sound economic and energy policy. It’s good for the economy, good for the environment, and has the potential to create many new businesses and new jobs.”