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Wheeler hopes to create economic powerhouse

Treasurer thinks new state investment plan could spur more jobs
by: L.E. BASKOW State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is proposing a two-step plan to promote more job creation in Oregon.

Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is drumming up support for a plan to consolidate state business assistance programs, giving the state what he calls an 'economic development powerhouse.'

The goal is to promote more job creation by helping get capital to promising young businesses, he said.

Wheeler said his plan would provide a more focused and dedicated source of funds for economic development across the state, instead of scattered efforts of the past by different agencies.

More than a dozen state agencies offer business loans, investments and related programs, Wheeler told the Portland Tribune editorial board Monday afternoon, but they typically operate as 'silos,' with little integration or analysis of the public benefits. Right now it's hard to get information on where they spend their money, and impossible to determine if they are succeeding at creating jobs, Wheeler said.

'The state's contribution to business capitalization is less than regions we like to compete against,' Wheeler said. 'All of these resources are fragmented,' he said. 'There's no strategic connection between these different funds.'

After touring the state for several months to get feedback from business owners, Wheeler is proposing a two-step plan, starting with a bill he hopes to pass in next month's session of the Oregon Legislature. House Bill 4040, dubbed the Oregon Investment Act, would establish the Oregon Growth Board, with most of the members appointed by the governor and working closely with the staff of the state's economic development department, Business Oregon.

The bill starts by placing the Oregon Growth Account under the authority of the new board - the first of what is hoped to be several business assistance efforts placed under the same umbrella. With funding from the Oregon State Lottery, the Oregon Growth Account has provided $99 million in seed capital to startup Oregon companies since 1999, according to an early-2011 report to the Legislature. It was designed to raise money for the Education Stability Fund, the state's reserve fund for public schools, but had experienced losses of nearly 8 percent since its inception, as of early-2011.

In stage two of Wheeler's plan, the Oregon Growth Board would be charged with devising a plan to fold in other business assistance and investment programs of the state, and seek legislative approval for those ideas in the regular 2013 legislative session.

This is not a backdoor proposal to create a state bank, as some progressives have called for, Wheeler said. The new board would not directly grant loans to businesses, though it might offer loan guarantees, he said.