EUGENE — Candidates in the contest for governor faced off in a debate at Churchill High School Thursday, offering their take on how to address the housing crisis, transportation, a revenue shortfall and the state’s low graduation rate.
The third of five debates between Gov. Kate Brown and GOP nominee Dr. William “Bud” Pierce, the event also featured for the first time Cliff Thomason, Independent Party of Oregon candidate and an industrial hemp farmer from Grants Pass.
The candidates are seeking election to complete the last two years of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s four-year term. As former secretary of state, Brown was next in the line of succession when Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015 amid an influence-peddling scandal.
The debate was hosted by League of Women Voters Oregon and Oregon Public Broadcasting, and moderated by Think Out Loud host David Miller.
Thomason provided a departure from largely partisan talking points by Brown and Pierce.
While Brown supports a $3 billion corporate sales tax measure on the November ballot to help fund expansion of the Oregon Health Plan, Pierce said state government could come up with the money for the expansion simply with more efficient operations.
Meanwhile, Thomason proposed ditching the corporate tax in favor of passing a general sales tax, with corresponding reductions in other kinds of taxes, to help pay for health care and other services. Voters have rejected a sales tax 10 times.
Asked why voters would approve a sales tax on an 11th try, Thomason responded: “Because I am asking them.”
On affordable housing, Pierce proposed reforming land-use laws to give counties more control over the cost of land and growth of urban growth boundaries. He said local governments also should to relax design standards and fees for affordable house.
“Otherwise, we won’t have affordably-built housing,” Pierce said.
Brown said expanding urban growth boundaries wouldn’t solve the problem.
She cited a $70 million package passed earlier this year that dedicated money to building affordable housing and giving assistance to homeowners to avoid foreclosure. Lawmakers also lifted a ban on local jurisdictions requiring affordable units in exchange for certain perks such as tax exemptions.
Brown promised to fight for more funding for affordable units and to outlaw no-cause evictions in the 2017 legislative session.
Thomason said the $70 million housing package would finance less than 1,000 units. Thousands of more are needed to address the housing shortage.
He proposed subsidizing $20 per square foot on the first 500 square feet of construction on affordable housing with guarantee of rents at $600 to $800 for units.
“We can build our way out of this,” while stimulating job growth, he said.
Moving on to the state’s low graduation rate, Miller noted that Oregon ranks 32nd in the nation for per-pupil funding levels, according to Governing magazine.
“Setting money aside for the time being, what else do you think is wrong with Oregon education?” Miller asked.
Thomason suggested giving all high school sophomores the GED test to give them “a sense of accomplishment” and the ability to access jobs and higher education if they leave school without a graduation diploma.
Pierce said he would push for more teacher and leadership training and give students tracks to pursue in high school, including vocational training and university.
Brown touted the Legislature’s investment in early education and STEM (science, technical, engineering and math) education and said her new graduation guru Colt Gill — a new position she created – would be coming up with more concrete plans for addressing the problem.
During the debate, Brown and Pierce clashed again over the $21 billion unfunded Public Employees Retirement System. Both repeated arguments they’ve made at past debates. Pierce has proposed rolling back future benefits for current and future employees to help scale back the state’s debt. He noted that Oregon is unique in requiring no contribution from employees.
“When I hear his proposals, I hear lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit…back on the hamster wheel,” Brown responded. Brown has said there are no apparent options to solve the unfunded liability apart from giving the Oregon Investment Board more power to get a greater return on the state’s investments.
Miller also brought up Pierce’s comment at a Sept. 30 debate at the City Club of Portland suggesting successful women aren’t victims of domestic abuse. Pierce apologized again for his assertion, saying he has since studied up on domestic violence and knows it can happen to anyone.
Brown replied that she leaves it to voters to decide whether they “want someone who just spent the weekend learning about this issue or someone who has been investing her time and energy and resources in increasing penalties and making sure there were more resources available for more domestic violence services.”
A recording of the debate will be broadcast at noon and 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, on OPB. The next gubernatorial debate is scheduled for Oct. 13 in Medford.