State leader optimistic about economy

<p>Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, left, meets new Hermiston City Manager Byron Smith at a Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Team luncheon Thursday at the Hermiston Conference Center.</p>

National rankings and state efforts have one leader optimistic about the future of Oregon’s economy.

At the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Team luncheon Thursday, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, who was visiting Hermiston and Pendleton this week, said her office has taken steps to help businesses and train the future workforce in hopes of making Oregon even more attractive to business.

While state patent filing and business climate rankings are positive, she said, the Secretary of State’s office hopes to improve the economy through efforts to help small businesses and by identifying and correcting educational system problems to prepare a qualified workforce.

In response to comments from the audience, Brown agreed that further efforts were necessary to help improve the state economy.

“None of us elected leaders has a silver bullet, but we’re doing everything we can to help Oregon’s economy grow and thrive,” she said.


Brown said Oregon’s national rankings in certain categories made her hopeful about the future. Oregon ranked third in the nation for the number of patent filings per capita, she said.

“When I first heard this figure, I chalked it up to our microbrew- and bicycle-friendly culture, but I really don’t think that’s the entire reason for it,” Brown said.

She cited the M3 Wave Energy Company as an example of Oregon innovation. Created by inventors from Salem, the company is testing water-based power-generating devices, she said.

“What’s innovative, instead of using buoys on the surface of the water, which is most of the wave projects that we’ve heard about in Oregon, they’re using gravity on the floor of the ocean,” Brown said. “I think it’s going to be the wave of the future.”

She said the nonpartisan Tax Foundation also ranked Oregon as the 13th best business climate in the country.

“I think that’s very good news and certainly the kind of climate that draws businesses to Oregon,” she said.


In 2013, the Oregon Legislature created the Office of Small Business Assistance within the Office of the Secretary of State, and Brown appointed Ruth Miles as the small business advocate. Brown said Miles helps business owners who encounter problems with state agencies.

“When you’re running a small business, time is definitely money, and we’re trying to save folks as much time as possible, so that you can go out and make as much money as possible and hire as many Oregonians (as possible),” she said.

Miles is compiling a list of proposals for the 2015 Legislature to consider, and Brown said she hopes these efforts will boost Oregon’s business climate rating into the top 10.


Brown said the economy also requires a well-trained workforce, and she is helping Oregon’s education system through performance audits.

“I’m actually the only Secretary of State in the nation that has the auditing function,” she said. “For every dollar we spent in performance auditing in my first four years in office, that’s resulted in over $32 in savings in efficiencies and cost effectiveness.”

The performance audits create a “road map” by identifying problems and potential solutions, and one audit the office conducted focused on Oregon education.

“Oregon’s dropout rate from high school is frankly one of the worst in the country,” she said. “Roughly one in four drop out.”

Brown said there are significant gaps between the test scores of economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged students and between white students and students of color.

“We’re failing to meet the needs of students living in poverty and students of color, particularly African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans,” she said. “The door to success for these students will be closed if we don’t figure out something different.”

Although the audit was disheartening, she said, it did reveal success stories, where those achievement gaps were reduced at the middle school level, that can be used as models for the rest of the state.

“What was really clear, at the successful middle schools, there’s a pattern of success,” Brown said. “What we’re seeing is that the principal sets really high expectations, that they are using data to measure student progress ... and the teachers collaborate really well.”

Many of the recommendations created through the auditing process do not require additional funding, so she hoped they could be implemented and help close the achievement gap and improve high school graduation rates, she said.

“It used to be that, if you didn’t have a high school diploma or a college education, you could go into agriculture, you could go into timber, you could end up fishing, but those jobs are fewer and far between now, so it’s really imperative that we get all of our children through high school and beyond,” she said.


Hermiston resident Don Skeen said large businesses bring smaller businesses to an area, and decisions such as the denial of a permit to Ambre Energy to ship coal on the Columbia River should be based on what is beneficial for the Oregon economy.

Brown said the permit decision had been appealed and agreed that larger businesses create “clusters of small business.”

“The challenge, I think, for rural communities, is how do we get a larger business in an area so that we can get small business clusters happening,” she said. “I think that’s obviously one of the challenges around the Ambre Energy project.”

In response to another comment about reducing the time required to obtain a business permit, Brown said she agreed the permit process should be quicker.

“We’ve been able to reduce business registration time,” she said. “We should be substantially reducing the time we need for permits. Two years, in terms of money and time and resources, is too long.”

Dennis Burke, a member of the Hermiston Futures Task Force, said the state water policy is a “constant obstacle” to economic development.

“We have the biggest, most unused resource going right by us on to the ocean,” he said. “We could do a lot more, I think, to not only stimulate our local economy but the entire state, if we could have some better policies in terms of how we look at that untapped resource.”

Brown agreed and said some water policy efforts had been made, but more were necessary.

“We haven’t gotten to a final solution that helps get more water on the ground, and that’s what needs to happen, I think,” she said.

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