Oregon is on cruise control.
The economy is humming. Jobs are plentiful in most places. The education system is showing just enough improvement to avoid setting off serious alarms.
Right now, public pension costs are a warning light in the dashboard for many local budgets, but smoke isn’t billowing out from under the hood.
But as the state barrels along, it’s hard to tell if the driver is paying attention.
Gov. Kate Brown’s rise to governor was a surprising turn of events, both a blessing and a curse for the longtime Oregon politician. Former Governor John Kitzhaber abruptly resigned in February 2015, and Brown, then the secretary of state, stepped adeptly into the role. The transition was smooth, mostly because Brown opted to carry on Kitzhaber’s policies and direction while declining to offer her own vision for the state, especially in matters that are crucial to the state’s future.
We refer again to PERS, a spike strip across the highway just around the curve with the potential to send the state into the ditch. The system is looking at more than $25 billion in unfunded obligations, and it needs to be addressed now. So far, Democrats in the governor’s office have failed to take the problem seriously even as the costs have piled up on local agencies around the state.
It will take either well-placed political capital — which Brown has — or an innovative approach from someone with ambitious ideas and little to lose. Which is where Knute Buehler comes in.
Buehler, a Republican representative from Bend, isn’t beholden to the public unions which make up a large portion of Brown’s base of support. While Brown has the resources and clout to tackle PERS reform head on, Oregonians are rightfully dubious she’ll do it after kicking the can down the road for so long. It is no longer someone else’s problem.
Buehler spoke candidly and thoughtfully about his views on education, health care, homelessness and the urban/rural divide. On education in particular he makes a strong point that Gov. Brown has not been the leader Oregon needs. Graduation rates are low, truancy rates are high and we fall among the worst states in nation on many other metrics. As with pension reform, it’s hard to picture the necessary changes coming under another term for Brown. Buehler’s plan to add school days to the calendar, increase funding by at least 15 percent and offer more support for teachers is a fresh and specific promise. We’re glad to have something to hold him to, if he’s elected.
A Buehler governorship also carries some risk. It requires that he come through on his promise to be a moderate in the governor’s office, working with a Democrat-controlled Legislature to present and fight for his ambitious ideas on education, housing and health. It also relies on the Legislature being willing to work with Buehler.
We believe Buehler is enough of a centrist to set aside the differences and focus on the big picture of Oregon’s future. Attack ads in this highly contentious and well-funded campaign would have you believe otherwise, but we find him to be a sincere candidate.
The other candidate in the race — Patrick Starnes, an Independent — has staked his fate on the issue of campaign finance reform. No progress is possible, he contends, unless big money is removed from the political process. While it’s a lofty goal, Starnes isn’t convincing in his ability to accomplish that single goal, let alone the myriad other issues facing the state.
We find Knute Buehler to be the best choice for governor in 2018.