Progress Board pegs Oregon as ‘average’ in report card

There were no straight As to be found on Oregon’s biennial report card, issued Monday by the state Progress Board, but on the bright side, there were no red-letter Fs either.

SALEM, Ore. – There were no straight As to be found on Oregon’s biennial report card, issued Monday by the state Progress Board, but on the bright side, there were no red-letter Fs either.

Instead, the checkup on how Oregon is doing on a series of 91 different economic, social, cultural and environmental benchmarks shows mainly middling grades, and not much progress made since previous results were tallied in 2005.

The report suggests a state that’s bouncing back from the recession of 2002 and 2003, but one that hasn’t quite yet regained all its economic footing, especially when compared to its wealthier neighbor to the north, Washington state.

For example, Oregon ranks third in the nation for job growth, the report says, and unemployment levels have been steadily dropping. But many of those jobs are relatively lowing paying, leaving the state’s per-capita income levels at just 93 percent of the federal average.

Even more tellingly, Oregon is behind Washington in nearly every measurement in the economic category, from trade outside the state’s borders to the cost of doing business, though Oregon does surpass Washington in numbers of new employers.

Education, too, had its highs and lows. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who chairs the Progress Board, singled out improvements in third grade mastery of math skills, now at 86 percent, but said the state must do better on persistently low levels of adult work force training.

Though the Progress Board is studiedly nonpartisan, its data can influence the ongoing budget debates in Salem; Kulongoski, for instance, said the report is proof that the state needs to invest more in community colleges than legislative budget leaders have outlined.

Two of the state’s worst-performing areas are actually interrelated, Progress Board members said Monday: homelessness and affordable housing.

In both categories, the statistics are grim: more than 30,000 individuals in Oregon were homeless on any given night in 2005, up nearly 50 percent in the last 12 years. That puts Oregon in the bottom 10 percent of all states.

Those who can afford rent or a mortgage are often paying too much for it: about 82 percent of low-income renters and 46 percent of low-income owners spent more than the suggested 30 percent on housing in 2006, according to the Progress Board report.

The Legislature is considering investing $100 million in affordable housing, an idea championed by State Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, who is the co-chair of the legislative budget committee and a Progress Board member. Oregon’s last major public investment in housing was a $14 million housing trust fund created in 1991.

But that proposal, underwritten by a $15 increase in the fee to record real estate documents at county courthouses, estimated to raise $30 million a year, is far from certain to pass muster with other lawmakers, especially Republicans suspicious of new taxes and fees.

Amid all this, there were some bright spots. The state’s efforts to fight off invasive species, for one, have been successful-of the 100 species on the “least wanted” list, only one, the New Zealand mud snail, has established itself in order.

And Oregonians say they’re plugged into their communities; over one million of the state’s residents volunteered in 2006, and more than 50 percent of Oregonians go to the museum, a play or another cultural activity at least once a year. That’s a full one-third more than the national average.