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Friday, January 5, 2007

Lessons from the leadership summit

Oregon's public sector subsumes all
Four legs good, two legs bad.

Obsolete Oregonians of a certain age and a certain station in life speak nostalgically of the days of Glenn Jackson, the utility executive and transportation commissioner who could conjure bridges and highways from discreet-but-forceful conversations with key players in business and government.

His name was invoked Thursday by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney at the Oregon Business Plan's Fifth Annual Leadership Summit, which has become the year's most pathetic business event. When Jackson was the state's pre-eminent power broker, Courtney reminded the audience, the government unions were just getting started.

Those were the days, businesspeople say, when public investments occurred because government was run like a business, with a sense of limits and respect for private property. While the process wasn't particularly open, it was productive.

In the years after Jackson died in 1980, Oregon business grew weak and government unions grew strong. The public and private sectors began to reverse roles, and Oregon's economic woes intensified. The business community's prevailing attitude about Salem during those years seemed to be, "Those people just don't get it." (Actually, non-monopoly businesses that still toil in the anachronism of competitive markets just don't get it.)

Those days have passed. We will never returned to the days of Jacksonish dealmaking, but we have arrived at a time in Oregon when Soviet-style, "one-way" collectivism generally dominates any talk about the nature of civics and the obligation to think beyond any single company's or community's balance sheet.

The Leadership Summit itself is evidence that the public-private reversal has matured. More than 1,000 apparatchiks from around the state gathered for the summit, including a U.S. senator, the state's governor and a critical mass of legislators, as well as some of the state's best-connected bankers, lawyers, investors and business executives.

Just since the leadership summit began four years ago, government union leaders control the executive branch, the GOP has been reduced to an afterthought in kitchens and living rooms, and business and government officials have joined around the principles of socialized health care, unlimited spending on public education, and government that does not have to answer to the People.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski marked a symbolic and functional milestone on this course Thursday when he announced that there would be no more elections for Oregon public offices except in case of death or retirement.

The conference signaled a moment of unanimity in state leadership, when citizens with differing agendas can forget about being heard and feeling represented, and when closed-door dealmaking is restored to the norm, like in the Glenn Jackson years, when well-informed, widely discussed public choices were unnecessary.

By The Oregonian

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