May 31, 2002

Wyden Plans Bipartisan Oregon Economic Summit for December

It's great to see so many of my friends here today. You know, I've been hosting these business breakfasts for a lot of years, but today's is a little different. My usual format at these events is that I talk for awhile about business issues in the spotlight back in Washington, D.C., and then I answer some of your questions. Today, however, I want to turn most of the focus on Oregon and Oregon's business climate. As you may know, I pride myself on being a free trade, "grow-the-economy" Democrat. Those aren't the issues that drove my initial interest in political office, however. What came first was my work with Oregon's senior population. I saw first-hand how better nutrition, access to affordable health care, and responsive law enforcement could make all the difference in the world in the quality of life of these Oregonians. I saw many of the same issues with regard to Oregon's kids, many of whom were under-nourished, under-educated, and lacking fundamental health care services that would give them a fighting chance in this life. And so I immersed myself in the world of government programs that provided decent health care, a daily square meal through Meals on Wheels or the school lunch program, and educational opportunity through Head Start. I entered politics because of my passion for these issues. But what made me a "grow-the-economy" Democrat was my epiphany as a young man - and as a young Democrat -- that unless we continued to grow our economy and our prosperity, the public support for these costly programs simply wouldn't be there forever. And so for over 20 years I've tried to be an independent voice for Oregon in the Congress, and I continue to look for opportunities to grow Oregon's economy in the U.S. Senate. Last week, I cast my vote in favor of giving our President a fast track for consideration of trade agreements. You've probably heard it from me before, but it bears repeating every time I get a chance to talk about economic issues of importance to the state: one in six jobs in Oregon is directly linked to trade, and this is one Democrat who will never turn his back on those working men and women. Some of those same trade-dependent men and women are also employed by family-owned businesses in our state. As you know, Oregon has an extraordinary concentration of family-owned businesses, businesses which live under the constant threat of crippling estate taxes. I crossed party lines last year and voted to bring an end to the estate tax. But because Congress couldn't reach agreement on how to pay for it - and all of the many other priorities the White House and Congress want to fund -- the estate tax is scheduled to re-emerge in 9 years. Now, to remedy this absurdity, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up estate tax repeal when Congress returns this summer. My vote this time has been made all the more difficult by the proximity of the November elections, and by the decision of some in my Party to make this vote a litmus test issue for congressional Democrats. I am announcing to you today that I have made my decision on the upcoming estate tax repeal vote. I will cast my vote to end this tax, and I will do it the name of issues that Democrats hold dear. Democrats believe in standing up for working families. No one will suffer more than the employees of family-owned companies in this state that will break up, or sell out to larger corporations, in order to satisfy their estate tax obligations. Democrats believe in standing up for the environment. Yet most environmentalists have never thought about what happens to farmland and timberland when heirs are forced to quickly pay their estate tax bills. If you oppose losing farmland to strip malls, or if you worry about unwise forestry practices on private lands, you should stand with me and work to repeal the estate tax. The estate tax is anti-worker, anti-environment, and anti-Oregon, and it is time for it to go. The same issues I confronted many years ago as a young man in Oregon politics are still very relevant today in state politics. Our state was arguably the hardest hit by the current recession of all the states. We were among the first to feel its affects and may be among the last to pull out. Salem is experiencing a budget crisis the likes of which we have never seen. Yet when the legislature looked into the abyss a short while ago, they just couldn't find it in their hearts to make the budget cuts that would have sent our state backward on a whole host of programs that are critical to Oregon's kids and the elderly. In my opinion, this generation of leaders in Salem is getting a very painful, but potentially useful reminder about the suffering that will occur if we fail to meet our obligation to grow-the-economy and prepare for Oregon's future. It's obviously too late for this recession and this budget mess to do anything forward-looking that will pull us out of the current difficulties. The good news is that Oregon will eventually pull out of this recession. The bad news, and the challenge ahead, is that the nation and the state will face future recessions. Further, I am not confident that Oregon is well-positioned to take advantage of future economic prosperity. Our loss of major, Oregon-based employers, our budget and educational challenges, and the lack of a well-accepted statewide economic development strategy cry out for leadership, and cry out for a coming together as Oregonians. There have been a number of worthy attempts to guide Oregon's economic development, and my speech today is not meant in any way to be an indictment of those efforts. The "Regional Strategies Program," "Oregon Shines," "Oregon Shines II," and other plans have all contained useful ideas for moving forward, and some have spun off initiatives that have produced results. It isn't that we are lacking ideas for comprehensive state economic development, but that we are lacking the necessary political commitment -- or "buy-in," if you will -- across city, county, and partisan lines to laying and maintaining the groundwork for Oregon's economic future. Until you get us all on the same page, across party lines, and keep us there, the state's economic development efforts will always fall more than a few years, and a few dollars, short. What I am proposing today is a blueprint for a public-private endowment of our state's economic development strategy . . . investing Oregon's political leaders in the plan, committing us to the plan, and holding us accountable for our follow-through. While our next Governor must take a leadership role in economic development, we cannot fully endow this plan unless there is a commitment from your state, Federal, and local officeholders. For instance, next year Congress will begin working on the reauthorization of the transportation bill. I'm on the committee that will write that bill, as is Congressman DeFazio. Your congressional delegation will direct many millions of dollars to transportation needs in the state. While ODOT and others have always weighed in on such matters, these bills have always been, in large part, a political exercise. Instead of having seven "free agents," wouldn't it better serve the state if these decisions were substantially guided by a public-private economic development plan for the state? In order to achieve this, we need to come together and devise a process that will unite state, local, federal, urban, rural, and business voices as allies in Oregon's future. Today I am announcing that I have asked Jonathan Ortmanns of the Public Forum Institute to come to Oregon shortly after the election in November to help convene a summit to help coalesce the political and business communities around a single vision for Oregon's economic development. The Public Forum Institute is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that has convened hundreds of conferences across the country designed to elicit ideas and get diverse groups working together to tackle difficult issues. I want to make clear that this will not be a Ron Wyden event. This will be a non-partisan gathering of business and political leaders from across the state, and held in conjunction with the efforts of the Oregon Business Council. For those of you who don't know, the Oregon Business Council has been working to develop an economic development agenda for Oregon's business community, and has enjoyed great cooperation from state and local economic development agencies and a variety of business leaders throughout Oregon. Their efforts - involving Dick Reiten, Duncan Wyse, and many others - have the potential to unify the state in a fashion that hasn't occurred before. I strongly support their efforts, and want to help make certain that we don't blow the opportunity to get the job done right this time. I have already asked some of Oregon's top political leaders from both parties to join with me as hosts of this event. I am pleased to report that both Senator Smith and Ted Kulongoski have agreed to co-host the summit with me, and that I am extending the same invitation to Kevin Mannix, Bill Bradbury, Peter DeFazio, who is the Dean of the House delegation, and key Republican and Democratic leaders from the legislature. I will also be asking Oregon's congressional delegation, the newly constituted legislature, and urban and rural leaders from across the state to participate as co-hosts of this effort. As Senator Smith and I have done in the U.S. Senate, we will be asking politicians to leave their politics at the threshold when it comes to working toward a brighter future for Oregon's economy. Along the way there will be many challenges. For instance, whatever we do, we must make certain that the economic progress we make comes, in significant part, as a result of the advancement of our rural areas, and not at the expense of those communities. We must get communities and businesses to stop thinking of each other as adversaries, and to start working together as allies. For example, while I understand the frustration with regard to Columbia Sportswear's move to Washington County, the last time I checked, Washington County and Portland were rather dependent on one another for each other's future. Where would Portland be today if not for Intel, of Washington County? Cities and counties, rural and urban areas, institutions of higher learning, and others, are going to have to learn to come together in order for Oregon to reach its highest potential. What we have learned from previous economic development efforts in this state is that when economic planning is driven primarily by government, the business community is unlikely to come together and work for its implementation. Likewise, if the business community comes forward with its own plan without investing elected officials in its outcome, the success of the effort will again be limited. We must learn to work together and trust one another, and we need a little help to get there. Our goal must be to invest the business community and elected officials in a wise course for Oregon's economic future, get both sides committed to that plan, and then hold us accountable for whether we have used our resources and clout to get the job done. The one proposal I know I will bring to this conference later this year is that the business community should devise a non-partisan way to grade Oregon elected officials on whether we are meeting our end of the bargain. Specifically, we need an objective report card for whether we have devoted our time, energy, and command over public resources toward the long-term economic goals of the state. Invest us, commit us, hold us accountable. And let the voters know how we're doing. Now I would like to hear your thoughts and questions, not only on what's going on in Washington, but also on what I can do as your Senator to help prepare the State for a better economic future.