Democratic nominee for governor John Kitzhaber talks to Ashland contractor Michael Morris following a roundtable discussion at Rogue Community College/Southern Oregon University Higher Education Center in Medford Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven

Kitzhaber gets down to business

Democratic candidate for governor John Kitzhaber visited Medford Wednesday and heard frustrated business and community leaders say that state government doesn't encourage an entrepreneurial spirit that promotes job growth.

Jim Fong, director of the Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council, said Oregon invests in community colleges and training programs to provide a ready work force, but does little in the way of stimulating the businesses that would provide the jobs.

"Oregon is behind the curve compared to other regions and other states," Fong said. "How do you meet the real-time needs of business?"

The two-term former governor, who's running against Republican Chris Dudley in November, met with about 25 community leaders to discuss jobs and the economy at the Higher Education Center in downtown Medford.

Dudley visited Jackson County soon after his May 18 primary victory.

Kitzhaber said the state and business have gone their separate ways in recent years, but he said the reality is they need each other for the economy to thrive.

"There is a great interdependence between the public and private sectors," Kitzhaber said. "Somehow, we've lost that connection."

He said greater access to capital to promote small and medium-sized businesses is the key to job growth. At the same time, he said, more needs to be done to increase Oregon's low per-capita wages. If wages could be increased, he said it would improve the economy and provide better funding for the state budget.

He outlined a combination of related strategies designed to stimulate job growth and keep Oregon out of the boom-and-bust economic cycles that have plagued it for decades.

He said he wants a state budget that spends only as much money as revenue allows, not a budget that preserves the same levels of service and then requires borrowing, tax measures or other financial schemes to pay for it. He said this "pay-as-you-go" budget would likely require some middle management state employees and other state workers to lose their jobs.

Kitzhaber said he wants the state to look at six- to eight-year budget planning cycles to better prepare for the future. He said he supports prevailing wage laws, which can be more expensive for developers in low-wage areas, but he understands how those laws can sometimes impede or even derail a project.

Brad Hicks, president and chief executive officer of The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, described how prevailing wage laws and other government restrictions led to the demise of the Bella Vita residential project in downtown Medford and to increased costs for Medford's sports park.

"In the minds of many, a public/private partnership is a disincentive," he said.

Russ Batzer, president of Batzer Construction Co., said he's found the land-use planning process a serious impediment to growth in Jackson County.

"There is nothing friendly about the process," he said.

Kitzhaber said he generally supports Oregon land-use laws, but acknowledged that some of Batzer's concerns could be addressed through streamlining the permit process.

Ron Fox, of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc. said much of the permit process could be handled through the Internet.

"You should be able to go online, fill out the information and provide a credit card," he said.

"Make it simple," Batzer added.

Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication, said he kept many workers on a part-time basis under a state unemployment insurance program. When the program ended and the workers were laid off, he said their unemployment benefits were unfairly calculated at their lower salary. In addition, his company faces higher unemployment insurance costs.

Thorndike said such problems hurt workers as well as the companies that are trying to keep them working.

Kitzhaber took notes during the meeting, saying he would study many of the ideas.

After the meeting, he said the Legislature has been loath to create budgets that are based on revenues, and instead has tried to maintain service levels, which have helped bring the state to another budget crisis and a $563 million revenue shortfall.

"I was surprised by the magnitude of the revenue shortfall," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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