Business Leaders: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

September 10, 2006By Chuck Sheketoff

What happens when a community foundation and an ideological political magazine jointly convene and facilitate a group of 37 Oregon business owners and CEOs to discuss the Oregon economy?

The “Declaration for Oregon’s Future” that resulted from the Oregon Community Foundation and BrainstromNW magazine meetings claims in its preamble that Oregon cannot take advantage of existing resources nor new opportunities for global growth because “Oregon’s infrastructure is weak.”

As someone who values the important roles that public structures play in improving the economy and quality of life in Oregon, I was hopeful that the declaration would provide meaningful guidance on strengthening Oregon’s infrastructure. Here was a prominent group of business owners and CEOs acting, they claimed, “not out of a selfish or profit motive” but rather from a “strong community feeling for Oregon and a deep concern that Oregon is quickly falling behind other states and countries.”

Then I read the specific proposals. Now it is clear that these particular representatives of Oregon’s business community are out of touch and selfish.

They fail to acknowledge that today, as during the 1990s, Oregon’s economy is booming. They are correct that too many jobs expected to be created in Oregon will be low paying ones. But they offer nothing new to the debates already occurring to change that course.

These business leaders claim that our current transportation infrastructure is inadequate to the task of moving people, goods, and services with the speed necessary to compete in the global economy. Yet, they appear unaware that through the Oregon Transportation Investment Act and the Oregon Connect program the state is already making significant investments (about $3 billion) in the state’s transportation system.

Moreover, they apparently acquiesced to the extreme politics of meeting co-sponsor BrainstormNW by ignoring the important role that continued investments in light rail public transportation would make. Just because the ideological political magazine dislikes light rail investments, these business leaders did not have to follow suit.

Most troubling about their plan is that they want somebody else to pay for the problems they identify. They want magically to increase investments in infrastructure without increasing the revenue available to make such investments. It is not clear where they would get the money to improve Oregon’s infrastructure. From K-12 schools? From nursing home care for the elderly? From public safety?

Despite their proclaimed altruism, these business leaders don’t want to contribute themselves to making the public investments. They want to lower taxes for the wealthiest Oregonians, and they want to impose an inherently regressive sales tax to help make up the difference. In other words, they want to shift even more responsibility away from wealthy people to middle- and low-income Oregonians. They want stronger public structures, but they want others to pay for them.

These business owners and CEOs don’t mention that over the course of the last 30 years Oregon has shifted income taxes away from large multi-state corporations at the expense of Oregon families and small businesses. A generation ago, corporations paid about 18 percent of Oregon’s income tax load. Today, they are paying about 6 percent, with individuals and small businesses picking up the tab for the difference. As a next step in strengthening our infrastructure, Oregon’s business leaders should be proposing to raise Oregon’s $10 minimum corporate income tax, paid by two-thirds of corporations.

Space here does not permit me to address all of their other plans. Suffice it to say, however, that they also want taxpayers to subsidize more improvements to the private rail system, relax Oregon’s popular and important land use regulations, and increase the timber harvests on publicly owned forests.

I agree with these leaders that Oregon needs to continue to improve our public structures that support a healthy economy and special quality of life. I wish they would acknowledge the strengths of our economy today, the regulatory streamlining that has already taken place, and the public investments Oregon is already making. These business leaders should also be willing to put their money where their mouths are and reverse corporate Oregon’s disinvestment in public structures.