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Let Kitzhaber steer state into future

Our Opinion

Oregon is in crisis as a state and as an economy. Unemployment statewide remains stuck at 10.6 percent, more than 10 percent higher than the national average. And while unemployment in the Portland metropolitan area - 10.2 percent - is modestly better, most of Oregon's big and small rural communities are suffering far more. In Central Oregon, unemployment ranges from 14.7 percent to 17.5 percent. In Medford, the rate is 12.8 percent.

These are not just statistics. These are real Oregonians who are out of work and suffering with little hope.

In tough times like these, we need to make hard choices and follow through effectively and quickly.

The election of Oregon's next governor is such an opportunity: Should voters elect former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who also has many years of experience as a state legislator and health care reform advocate? Or should they select a political novice, the moderate Chris Dudley, who has inspired Oregonians by saying that the state can do far better than it has?

We wish it were that easy: experience over inspiration.

By the narrowest of margins, we support Democrat Kitzhaber. We do this with an essential caveat: If Kitzhaber is elected on Nov. 2, he must use his deeper knowledge of Oregon government - knowledge that separates him from Dudley - to go to Salem and, in essence, blow up state government and rebuild it with the help of a diversity of Oregonians.

We think both candidates are similar in many ways and should be admired.

• Both speak with conviction about the requirement to alter state government significantly and focus on an improved economy.

• Both offer a series of thoughtful initiative papers that are still short on specifics and leave voters wanting a more conclusive sense that things can improve.

• Both favor long-term budgeting to prioritize state programs and balance expenditures and revenue.

• Both are committed to bringing public employee costs in line by not just debating wages or benefits - but by capping the total compensation paid to public employees.

• Both favor the expansion of a rainy day fund. Dudley would dedicate 3 percent of the state's general fund to this purpose in good economic times. Kitzhaber would seek to address the same issue through changes in the state's kicker law.

• Both stress an emphasis on improving the state's economy. Dudley would eliminate the state's capital gains tax to stimulate private investment. Kitzhaber would modestly scale back capital gains taxes. He favors publicly supported energy-efficiency programs and advocates bringing jobs to communities through initiatives such as using woody bio-mass from Oregon's forests.

Still, there are sharp differences. Dudley asks why Oregonians should trust Kitzhaber once more, when he didn't previously deal with the state's spending problems.

It is on the expense side of the ledger that we think Dudley would seek more immediate changes than Kitzhaber. He would institute a process to evaluate all state agencies; would call for all new or expanded programs to automatically end in six years; and would hire a director of public-private sector partnerships to help revitalize Oregon.

At the end of the day, good ideas and experience will determine success. Given that it is impossible to know in advance of the election who Dudley would bring with him to Salem as part of his administration, we sense Kitzhaber has the best chance to quickly implement effective, course-changing public policy.

We believe Kitzhaber is ready to do this. He has committed to ask for the resignation of all state agency directors, whose rehiring would be contingent on his approval of a required strategic plan for each agency.

Yet, we would go one step farther - regardless of which candidate is elected. We would break apart the dozens of agency silos in state government, eliminate many and reorganize agencies into five clusters: sustainable practices and infrastructure; human resources; total education; public safety; and economic success.

We concede that Kitzhaber's ability to change state government and renew economic vitality is not assured or completely thought out. The same is true of Dudley.

The final test of who should be elected comes down to an evaluation of which candidate can best use the office of governor to gather, inspire and engage Oregonians to adopt change, invest in the future and work together.

While governor, Kitzhaber demonstrated a great capacity to inspire people, but he also frequently dropped the ball by not full engaging citizens as a partner.

Both candidates present risks, opportunities and rewards. Whoever is elected should plan on just one term as governor. To be successful, Oregon's next governor must initiate deep changes in how the state operates - and in doing so he must be willing to offend the special interests that he would depend upon for re-election.

In these extraordinary times, we narrowly advise Oregonians that John Kitzhaber provides the most assured choice as Oregon's next governor of being able to steer this state forward, but in a much different direction.