State treasurer speaks at chamber event

by: WILSONVILLE AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE - The economy was the focus of much of Ted Wheeler's comments, focusing on his ideas to help improve Oregons ranking in wages, education and infrastructure status. Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler spoke in Wilsonville on Sept. 11 at the South Metro Leadership Forum.

During his comments he covered everything from the debate about the Columbia River Crossing to the use of state funds to lure SoloPower to the state.

The economy was the focus of much of Wheeler’s comments, focusing on his ideas to help improve Oregon’s ranking in wages, education and infrastructure status.

“When it comes to our economy ... we are fully asleep and not taking steps to be globally competitive in our state,” he said.

As he has been doing around the state, Wheeler outlined the Westcoast Infrastructure Exchange, a nonprofit cooperative between the states of Oregon, Washington, California and Canada’s British Columbia.

“From the 1930s to the 1950s that nation was big on infrastructure and invested heavily at an unprecedented level,” he said. “That was the bedrock of the economic growth this country saw.”

Wheeler said today’s infrastructure is crumbling and there is a need for new infrastructure in the area of broadband Internet and the smart power grid. He also said that the state couldn’t keep its roads maintained or harbors dredged and that we are “foreclosing on economic opportunities” because of the lack of proper infrastructure.

Wheeler also talked about one of his most recent proposals, the Oregon Opportunity Initiative. The proposal would be to issue bonds to use for scholarships for poor and middle-class students to help pay for college. The fund would be invested to generate revenue and that revenue would be used to help students pay for the rising cost of college.

One of the big challenges is the poverty rate in Oregon. Wheeler said that more than 660,000 people are under the poverty level, meaning that if they made up a city, it would be the second-largest city in the state. He also pointed to the high unemployment rate and declining incomes as challenges the state faces.

“The bottom line is that we have serious problems in rural Oregon,” Wheeler said. “Until rural Oregon recovers, we don’t recover.”

Wheeler said Oregon had a great opportunity, being a part of the Pacific rim, which is expected to create 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

“We have a front-row seat, we need to decide if we are going to be participants or spectators,” Wheeler WILSONVILLE AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE - Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler speaks at the South Metro Leadership Forum.

He said that with Oregon’s established business sectors in health care, education and technology, the state was in a position to improve the economy. But there were many challenges to face.

Chamber board member Doris Wehler asked Wheeler if he was in support of investing more money into SoloPower, the company that flirted with expanding in Wilsonville several years ago.

The thin-film solar panel company opted instead to locate in Portland and has since been having financial problems and hasn’t met requirements for receiving state funding.

“I hope not, I wouldn’t,” Wheeler replied. “That is a Business Oregon issue, but it proves that government is bad at picking winners and losers. We need to help support sectors, but giving companies direct investments, that is for venture capitalists.”

Wheeler also talked about the Columbia River crossing project and said that his department has been asked if Oregon building the bridge alone would be financially feasible. He said the answer could be yes, but there would be stipulations.

He listed the legalities of building an Oregon-funded bridge into Washington, if Washington would allow Oregon to toll Washington drivers heading south and how much interest rates would rise.

“It could be yes, if, and the ‘if’ is the key,” he said. “From an economic perspective, it’s my job to make sure this doesn’t bankrupt us.”

Wheeler also talked about the issues surrounding counties struggling to transition from timber harvest and said that manufacturing jobs pay twice as much as hospitality jobs do, so transitioning those counties to “tourist havens” wouldn’t provide the economic impact of harvesting timber.

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