Oregon's May 20 primary is six weeks away, and in a state that votes by mail that means decision time is coming even sooner.

A sure sign that the political season is upon us is the sight of legislative candidates walking door to door in East County neighborhoods. Not far behind will be direct-mail pieces espousing a candidate's virtues or exposing his or her opponent's supposed flaws.

This is the way legislative races are conducted in Oregon - through a combination of personal contact, mass mailings, media coverage and the occasional live political forum. But despite all that activity, Oregon's legislative campaigns rarely shed adequate light on what candidates actually believe or on how they would behave in office. And too often, voters allow the people who seek to represent them in Salem get away with generalities that sound impressive but don't address important issues with any specificity.

Don't settle for platitudes

How many candidates for the Oregon Legislature in the past 20 years have run on a platform that education must come first? We would say nearly all of them have done so, but how many, once in office, have found it's more difficult than they thought to have well-funded, high-performing schools, colleges and universities?

Likewise, how many times have voters heard candidates say they'll never support new taxes - that all that's required is greater government efficiency? This is a common platitude, but those same candidates are unable to say what exactly they would cut from government.

This year's elections are too critical to Oregon's future to allow legislative candidates to campaign on cliches. And in East Multnomah County, the first key decisions will be made in the May primary - when Democratic voters will decide which candidate will advance to the November election for House District 49, which includes part of Gresham and all of Fairview, Troutdale and Wood Village. Also in May, Republican voters have a decision to make in House District 52, which spans from east Gresham and east Troutdale to Corbett and up into Sandy.

Do they understand key issues?

But to make informed choices - both in May and November - voters must understand what candidates truly stand for. Legislative candidates ought to be able, at a minimum, to describe in detail their positions on the following issues:

• Oregon's economy is likely to follow the nation's in a downward path. Candidates must say how they would respond to a decline in state revenues. What areas would they cut and what actions would they support - including tax increases - to keep services in place?

• On the topic of education, legislative hopefuls cannot simply say schools are their top priority. They must describe what level of funding they support for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. And they must say how the state can tighten the connection between its high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions.

• The state's underfunded transportation system is a concern throughout Oregon. What are candidates willing to do to raise money for roads and bridges?

• Legislative candidates must go beyond recognizing that health care is nearing a crisis for many Oregonians. What would they do to improve access to medical care and how would they pay for it?

Beyond these issues, potential legislators must be ready to take specific positions on economic development, land use and the environment, including Oregon's carbon footprint. The concerns that come before legislators are myriad, but no one should be elected to an important office without being able to demonstrate a solid and specific understanding of the choices they will be asked to make.

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