Kate Brown was re-elected as Oregon governor with 49.99 percent of the vote in the latest statewide results.
She should never forget that number. Neither should her Democratic colleagues in the Oregon Legislature. Even if her tally edges past 50 percent in the final results, voters did not seem very enthusiastic for her policies or her performance.
Oregon needs a new Kate Brown, one who will govern from the center instead of one who is seen as placating the public-employee unions and their allies who not only helped keep her in office, but also added to their Democratic majorities in the Legislature.
Brown has resolutely opposed significant changes in the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System, even though the pension system’s $22 billion unfunded liability is grabbing ever-larger pieces of city, county, school and state agency budgets. It remains confounding that the governor and unions are willing to sacrifice current jobs — and the public services those employees perform — to prop up pensions.
A number of worthwhile changes have been proposed by state Sens. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, the League of Oregon Cities, the Oregon School Boards Association and other individuals and organizations. Meanwhile, the need for PERS reforms is an ongoing topic at the annual Oregon Leadership Summit because so little has been accomplished during Brown’s tenure.
Yet Brown and her cohorts argue that the proposals would accomplish too little, would be unconstitutional and would break contracts. Not so.
Certainly, any changes could not be retroactive. The Oregon Supreme Court has been clear. But going forward, even small changes collectively could have a significant impact on PERS’ stability. As to the legality of some proposals, only the courts can determine that; it is worth legislating those good ideas and putting them before the courts.
The current pension system pits job-seeking and current public employees against retirees and those close to retirements. That is insane, which is why everyone should have a stake in meaningful PERS reforms.
Now that Brown no longer has to curry favor to gain re-election, she should strive to govern from the moderate center and represent all of Oregon, not just the urban population centers whose Democratic voters propelled her re-election.
She must set well-defined, achievable goals in key areas — improving mental health care for youth and adults, lengthening the school year and boosting graduation rates, combating homelessness, developing affordable housing, strengthening foster care while reducing the need for it, expanding substance-abuse treatment and fighting the opioids epidemic and expanding economic opportunity throughout rural Oregon.
Brown tends to have so many priorities that they become meaningless. To be an effective governor, that must change. PERS reform is the place to start.