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Wyden talks trade, transportation at Westside Economic Alliance forum

PMG PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks to an audience of business and government officials during a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum Thursday morning.When it comes to nourishing businesses that thrive in the global economy and bolster the entire state of Oregon, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's message for Washington County business and government leaders Thursday was: “You're already doing it.”

Wyden, Oregon's senior senator, was the featured speaker at the Westside Economic Alliance's breakfast program at Hillsboro's NW Events & Environments Center on Thursday morning.

The senator spoke enthusiastically about Washington County's economic potential and touted his work in Congress to promote its business interests.

“When I think about the economy of Washington County, the first thing that comes to mind is much of Oregon's economic lifeblood essentially flows right through here,” Wyden told his audience of several dozen, which included local mayors, county commissioners and Metro councilors. “I believe Washington County can spark a bigger role for the entire state in the global economy.”

Wyden is a leading advocate for free trade in the Senate Democratic caucus — a position not shared by many others in his party — and his first policy topic of the morning was trade.

“Trade done right is a big winner for Oregon,” Wyden said, noting that wine, electronics and other Washington County products have found a market overseas.

Fielding a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement being negotiated between a dozen Pacific Rim countries including the United States, Wyden acknowledged that its critics “have a lot of valid points.”

Wyden secured language that will require the government to publish any TPP agreement before Congress votes on it, he noted, in response to concerns about secrecy. He also criticized some opponents' arguments that TPP would lead to a “race to the bottom” in wages and labor standards, saying the agreement should be used to enforce labor rights in participating countries — including countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, where watchdog groups have warned about exploitation of workers.

“I'll tell you, if the United States walks off the field on trade issues, you can be darn sure there's going to be a race to the bottom,” Wyden said.

Wyden also talked about his congressional accomplishments on behalf of the winemaking and craft brewing industries, as well as his goals for the legislative session that will resume after Labor Day. He identified a comprehensive transportation bill and water system upgrades among his top priorities.

“We absolutely must have a long-term transportation bill,” he said, commenting on the Portland area's increasing traffic problems. He suggested that sections of the tax code that allow some corporations to save money by outsourcing jobs should be reformed in order to pay for infrastructure improvements, calling it “a matter of basic fairness.”

Speaking afterward, Wyden said he thinks traffic and congestion throughout the United States — not to mention gridlock in Congress — are bad enough that legislators will be forced to take action.

“At certain times, the frustration level erupts to the point where you can't justify inaction any longer,” he said.

Regarding the burgeoning presidential primary races, Wyden said that frustration with government has been the fuel for business mogul Donald Trump's unexpected rise to the top of the field of Republican candidates for 2016.

“I think if you really think through Donald Trump's candidacy … this is an extension of what Americans see as an enormously frustrating political process,” Wyden said. “They think Washington is distant, not connected, run by special interests, and pretty much drowning in processes and rules and regulations.”

Wyden was also asked about his stance on the nuclear deal with Iran. He is one of just a handful of Democratic senators who has not yet declared a position on the deal, and he avoided making news on the subject Thursday morning, saying he is still undecided.

“I owe it to those soldiers coming back from demobilization to spend the time and review all of the materials, and I intend to do that,” Wyden said. “And then we'll have to see.”

In total, Wyden spoke for about an hour at the event. Pam Treece, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, said Wyden addresses her business group nearly every year.

“The reality is that we have a very strong working relationship with Senator Wyden and with his staff, and I think the relationship with his staff is equally important,” she said, adding, “Having a senior senator in his capacity means a big deal to the business community on the Westside, as well as the whole state.”

Treece said she was pleased to hear Wyden talk about trade, transportation and Scoggins Dam, a major link in Washington County's water system that he is seeking federal funds to upgrade. She said the senator “does a good job of relating to the business community.”

“I think what I was most impressed with is how he knows businesses in Washington County,” she said. “He really resonates well with our businesses ... especially when you're talking about a Democrat.”

Thursday's program was presented by Frontier Communications. Legacy Health is also a sponsor of the Westside Economic Alliance's breakfast forum series.

The Westside Economic Alliance is based in Tigard.