Senators hear pleas to ease business rules

A heavy regulatory burden is crippling the state's economy, three private business operators told Oregon senators at a Hood River hearing on Dec. 21

"I believe that we need regulatory reform," Camille Hukari, a fourth generation upper valley orchardist of pears and apples, told the six legislators present.

"As is always the case, we add more laws and regulations each legislative session -- it seems that none are ever evaluated, eliminated or revised to reflect today's work environment and economy," said Hukari. "We need common sense in developing and implementing regulations."

Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, who co-chairs the Senate Economic and Job Stimulus Committee, said that common theme has been woven throughout several recent hearings.

Hukari was joined by a member of the construction industry in her assertion that the regulatory process needed to be streamlined. Sandy Trainor, senior vice president of Benge Construction and a member of the Associated General Contractors Oregon - Columbia Chapter, said commercial builders had been hard-hit by the slowing economy, with recent layoffs of between 20-30 percent statewide.

"The commercial construction industry is a bit like a canary in a coalmine -- when our industry begins to falter it is a sign for the economy that hard times are coming," Trainor said.

She urged the legislators to change the costly and time-consuming land use and permitting processes that made it difficult for new industries to settle and grow in Oregon.

Dave Riley, general manager of Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort and Cooper Spur, said land-use laws also made it almost impossible to build facilities that would accommodate the growing recreation and tourism sector of Hood River County.

He said the county's employment base was shifting away from natural resources, with the timber industry "dead" and tree fruit growers struggling against bad markets, grocery consolidation and foreign competition. In addition, Riley said the county currently did not have the infrastructure to attract high-tech industries which necessitated that it capitalize on its scenic resources and the growing demand for year-around outdoor activities.

However, Riley said the land-use law for siting developments, such as a destination resort, in rural areas was almost impossible to meet. Under Goal 8, Riley said the resort had to be located more than three miles away from land that "could" produce annual crops valued at $1,000 per acre. Since that requirement included Christmas tree farms and feedlots Riley said there was no property within the county that would not accommodate those two commercial uses.

"This is a limiting factor with respect to stimulating the economy and adding jobs in a distressed rural county that is perfectly positioned to capture the demand for developed recreation in a manner that protects high value farm lands," said Riley.

Although the cases were different, Metsger said similar expert testimony about these issues was given during three hearings in Salem last week. The special committee has been charged with seeking out solutions that would provide an immediate fix for Oregon's ailing economy and then a long-term solution so the state can better weather future recessions.

In November, Oregon's unemployment rate shot up eight-tenths of a percentage point to 7.4. percent, making it the state with the high unemployment rate in the nation. Since that grim news is coupled with climbing budget shortfall projections that reached about $900 million this week, Metsger said legislators are gathering data to make informed "hard decisions" about budget cuts during a special session in February.

"I thought the Hood River hearing went very well and it reminded all of us how valuable it is to go out and talk to people on their own turf," said Metsger.

He said it appeared from both expert and citizen testimony that Oregon needed to take a hard look at its regulatory process and land-use laws to find a way to make that process more "user-friendly." He said Oregon also needed to diversify its business base, which is currently heavily reliant upon high-tech industries, which have also undergone an economic downturn.

"The purpose of the hearing process has been to look at everything out there so we can decide what to do," he said. "This is not fun for anyone, the responsibility of leadership is to find the best path for the people, even when that involves difficult decisions."

He said Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked every state agency to come up with budget cuts of between two and 10 percent in two percent increments so "massive" cuts will also be made in the government sector.

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