A proposed business-lobby merger aimed at breaking progressive Democrats' stranglehold on Oregon politics has come under fire. A large majority of former chairs of the Oregon Business Association has panned a proposed merger with Associated Oregon Industries.
On June 8, OBA's board voted to join with AOI to form a "transition board" to work toward merging the organizations.
That same day, a group of 14 former OBA chairs voted to oppose the formation of such a board—a move tantamount to opposing the merger itself. Of the former chairs surveyed then, nine opposed the transition board, two supported it, two deemed themselves "skeptical" and one abstained.
On July 13, the former OBA chairs who voted to oppose the transition board issued a detailed report laying out their fears about a merger.
"Our concern regarding the possible merger or combination of OBA and AOI derives from the basic reason that OBA was formed, how it has evolved, and the unique role it has grown to play," the report says.
Although the potential merger of two acronyms largely unknown outside political circles may seem unimportant to the average Oregonian, the potential tie-up, which has been in the works for more than a year, has ramifications far beyond corporate boardrooms and the hallways of the Capitol.
Founded in 1895, Salem-based AOI is in some ways a legacy of an era when Republicans dominated Oregon politics and natural resource and manufacturing companies dominated the state's economy. It is much larger than OBA, owns a prominently-placed headquarters near the Capitol, and has far more money to spend.
OBA was founded just 17 years ago as a reflection of the changes the state was undergoing. It is based in Portland and grew out of a recognition that many businesses disagreed with AOI's approach.
In the document they prepared questioning whether merging the two organizations, the OBA board chairs compared the two groups in 10 policy areas:
We call the Board’s attention to the differences between OBA and AOI concerning their basic values, beliefs, and agendas in Salem, and regarding their respective effectiveness in influencing state policymakers, as demonstrated by following comparisons of the positions and impacts OBA and AOI have had on ten recent major public policy issues before our Legislative Assembly and Oregon ballot measure voters.
- Rainy Day Fund. OBA was a leader in developing and passing legislation creating a Rainy Day Fund for the state, to reserve state funds for periods of recession. AOI generally was not engaged on this issue.
- PERS Reform. OBA has lead in actively supporting reforms of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). AOI has not prioritized this issue.
- Education Systems. OBA has consistently been a leader on promoting policies to improve the state’s K-12 and higher education systems. AOI has generally not engaged on K-12 or higher education issues.
- Land Use. OBA has supported Oregon’s land use system and opposed ballot measures that sought to significantly change it. AOI has generally not been supportive of the state land use system.
- Clean Transportation Fuels. OBA has supported the state’s Clean Fuels Program, requiring transportation fuel to decrease in carbon intensity over the next ten years. AOI does not support the Clean Fuels Program.
- Coal-to-Clean Measure. OBA recently supported the “coal-to-clean” legislation that transitions the state off coal power, and requires new policies for electric vehicles. AOI was neutral on this measure.
- Corrections Reforms. OBA has actively supported reforms of the state corrections system to reduce spending on incarceration and move funds to rehabilitation, with a goal of decreasing spending on corrections over the long-term. AOI has not been engaged on this issue.
- Marriage Equality. OBA believes rights for gays and lesbians is a business issue and has been a strong leader in supporting marriage equality. AOI has not taken a position on this issue.
- Workplace Nondiscrimination Based On Sexual Preference. OBA supported employment non-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians in the workplace. AOI has opposed these protections.
- PAC Philosophy. The OBA-PAC has traditionally supported Republican and Democratic candidates in a 50%-50% split, with a focus on electing moderates. In competitive races, the AOI Prosperity PAC has primarily supported Republican candidates.
The impetus for the combination is a series of victories that Democrats and their labor allies have won going back a decade but intensifying with Measures 66 and 67, the income tax hikes voters passed in 2010, including two failed attempts at passing non-partisan primary elections in 2008 and 2014 and a recent slew of progressive legislation, including a low-carbon fuel standard, family medical leave and a big minimum wage hike.
The promise of a unified business lobby is a more effective counter-weight to Our Oregon, the union-backed advocacy group that dominates state ballot measure contests, and to the public employee-union backed Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and in all state-wide offices.
The problem with forming a unified business lobby, as OBA's ex-chairs point out, is that there is no such thing as a unified business community view on many hot-button issues. Their report concludes with the assertion that unless there is agreement on shared values, any combination of the two organizations is doomed.
Without compatibility on fundamental world views, political philosophies, and policy agendas between OBA and the new venture,” the report says, “We believe, the merged or combined entity very likely will be doomed to fail.”