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Ask first where Oregon is headed

Our Opinion

Former two-term Gov. John Kitzhaber ensured that the 2010 race for Oregon governor will have both heft and intrigue when he announced last week that he will attempt an unprecedented return to office.

Kitzhaber's decision already is influencing the political calculations of several fellow Democrats, and likely will affect the plans of potential Republican candidates as well. All must consider whether to take on a candidate who can start the campaign with some residual popularity, instant name recognition and a historic ability to raise large sums of money.

Before this race gets too deep into the question of who is running for office, we think voters should first consider where Oregon needs to go and what it will take to get there. We think this state needs improvement - and not just because of the recession.

Oregon's next governor should lead that improvement. To earn support, any candidate - including Kitzhaber - must articulate a compelling, specific direction for the state and demonstrate the ability to achieve those objectives.

Looking forward to 2010, Oregon will struggle with several unresolved nagging concerns, as well as many emerging challenges. Among the issues that should rise to the surface:

• How can Oregon finally get off of the boom-and-bust cycle when it comes to financing K-12 education? The Legislature's establishment of a rainy day fund helps, but public schools remain vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy - punishing students unfortunate enough to be in school during recessionary times.

• How does Oregon stop treating higher education - universities and community colleges - as stepchildren to K-12 schools? This state must invest strategically and consistently in all levels of education.

• The next governor should create a strategic vision for Oregon that requires all state agencies to work together to achieve measurable, strategic outcomes. Some improvement is under way, but more is needed. The alternative is a fiefdom system that produces inconsistent outcomes and takes the state in multiple directions.

• How can Oregon achieve true fiscal reform? We aren't just talking about providing for a less volatile tax system, but about the need for more spending reform. If the cost of state government grows at an unsustainable rate, no amount of tinkering with taxes will fix an underlying financial defect.

• What are the next steps for Oregon to move forward on carbon reduction and other environmental issues? Oregon is a leader among other states on these matters, but it must maintain that advantage for economic and ecological reasons.

• The state needs continued emphasis on creating and sustaining jobs throughout Oregon. That emphasis should be on employing far more Oregonians in traditional agricultural, forestry and manufacturing sectors, as well as in emerging fields such as energy, high tech, sustainability and bioscience.

• Finally, but most importantly, how will the next governor listen to and learn from people throughout the state with a goal of restoring Oregon as a place of consistent, high-level economic, educational and environmental success?

By many measures, this state once was in the top tier nationally. But it has slipped toward mediocrity, particularly when it comes to the economy and education. Urban-rural divisions remain. Sharp political partisanship contributes to our difficulties.

Looking ahead, Oregon will progress only if it has inspirational leadership capable of building broad-based public partnerships. That's the true challenge awaiting candidates wanting to be elected governor in 2010.