Bill would help put ‘Made in Oregon’ back on license plates

SALEM — Oregon’s manufacturing jobs are a valuable commodity in the state’s economy. Not only are they some of the best-paid jobs overall, but they generate more secondary jobs than any other sector of the workforce. That’s why the state’s business recruitment plans often entail sizable subsidies to lure manufacturers to Oregon.

But, says the Oregon AFL-CIO, when it comes to retaining jobs, the state’s left hand (which does the purchasing) doesn’t always work in concert with its right hand (which seeks to attract and retain jobs in the private economy).

The experience of the Irwin-Hodson Company in Portland is a case in point. Irwin-Hodson is the only U.S.-based manufacturer of vehicle license plates. It provides good-paying, union-represented jobs with pensions and fully-paid health benefits. And, like most manufacturers, its direct jobs support secondary jobs.

But Irwin-Hodson lost its contract with Oregon last year because it was underbid by a Canadian firm (based in Nova Scotia), which was greatly advantaged by the weakness of the Canadian dollar. The cost differential was approximately 7 percent, but that differential didn’t take into account the loss of tax revenues from the workers and the company and the added cost to the state for unemployment benefits. As a result of losing the contract, the company laid off eight workers.

“At a time when we are attempting to use every means at our disposal to keep good jobs in Oregon, including the use of outright taxpayers subsidies, it fails the common-sense test to terminate the state’s business with this company and force the elimination of much-needed good jobs in our state,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. “In effect, we are willing to pay employers to locate here, but we are not willing to pay even a pittance more to purchase the products that sustain good jobs already here.”

Oregon law already provides a preference for in-state firms that engage in printing, binding and stationery work — a concept which makes sense for the production of license plates as well, Nesbitt said.

A bill in the Legislature would extend the in-state preference to manufacturers of vehicle registration plates and it would require the Oregon Department of Transportation to advertise for new bids after the first year of the contract.

SB 899 passed the Senate on a vote of 28-2 on June 17. It now awaits a hearing in the House Rules Committee.

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