Focus on jobs, jobs, jobs for a better economy
Take heart Oregon, but do not be satisfied. The state's unemployment rate is finally approaching the national average of 9.1 percent and the number of working Oregonians is gradually rising after robust job increases in January and February.
The Oregon Employment Department on Tuesday announced that Oregon's unemployment rate was 9.3 percent in May. The state's economy added 1,300 non-farm jobs in May and employment has grown by 16,800 jobs since the start of 2011.
But these statistics also show just how far Oregon's economy has to climb before it can provide a job for everyone who wants one. Oregon's place in the national economy remains woeful. The state's unemployment rate in April was the nation's 12th-worst - tied with Idaho and Tennessee.
179,201 workers still without jobs
While incremental employment increases are welcome indeed, they hardly are an indication of a booming economy and do little to improve the fate of the 179,201 Oregonians who would like to work, but remain unemployed. Many more people are underemployed in jobs that don't provide the wages or hours that these workers were accustomed to before the recession.
Oregon's rate of economic growth is being slowed, in part, by factors outside the state's control, including high gasoline prices that depress discretionary spending among consumers. Yet, there are steps that Oregon and Portland-area leaders can take to improve economic performance in the short and long term.
Gov. John Kitzhaber highlighted two of those measures on Tuesday when he responded to the most recent employment report. Kitzhaber pointed to the Legislature's movement on his so-called 'Cool Schools' initiative, which would allow school districts to apply for low-interest loans to retrofit aging K-12 schools with energy-efficient technology.
He also put in a plug for his industrial-lands legislation, which speeds up the permitting process for key industrial sites.
If approved by the Legislature, both of these bills could help improve the overall economy. But local communities also must take action to help spur economic change, including these measures:
• Regionally, the Metro Council and its local government partners - including the city of Portland and Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties - must protect manufacturing-job sites from conversion to other uses or from undue restrictions. They also must help foster the cleanup of brownfield sites that are unused due to contamination.
• This fall, these same regional partners must focus on adding a reasonable supply of new industrial land sites to the regional urban growth boundary. Such expansion of available land for jobs will ensure that new or existing businesses have a place to locate or grow in the near future.
• Local jurisdictions should cap taxes and fees for anything other than existing services until Oregon starts meeting Kitzhaber's job growth goals for six consecutive months. Otherwise, businesses and families will continue to bear a tax burden that will dampen economic recovery and new job creation.
• Private sector, educational, local government and civic leaders should implement immediate strategies that help employ Oregonians in higher-wage, high-value jobs. The Oregon Business Plan and Kitzhaber made this same call to action earlier this year. Without such focus, we will be a region and an economy that adds new jobs, but whose residents earn far less than people in places such as Denver, Minneapolis or Austin.
These and other policies and practices must be an immediate priority for Oregon's residents and leaders - unless this state wants to be satisfied with a tepid recovery that could prove to be both insufficient and short-lived.