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Candidates: Focus on what affects residents

Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Rep. Dennis Richardson squared off in the first gubernatorial debate of the year last week at the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association convention in Salem. As expected, the debate featured plenty of back-and-forth bickering and finger-pointing over the Cover Oregon website debacle, as well as a discussion about the relative competency of each of the two major party candidates.

And that’s fine. But we hope that going forward, the two men who would be governor will instead address the concerns that strike closest to the hearts of all Oregonians.

It’s true that Kitzhaber’s failure to oversee the Cover Oregon website adequately has opened a narrow opportunity for his Republican rival to halt the GOP’s losing streak in statewide elections. Yet Richardson must do more than complain about Kitzhaber’s deficiencies as an administrator — he also must offer credible suggestions for improving Oregon’s performance in the areas people most value.

Fortunately for the candidates, what Oregonians care about is easy to decipher. The Oregon Values and Beliefs Survey, conducted last year by DHM Research with the help of some of Oregon’s most important institutions, provides clear guidance.

The 9,000 people in Oregon who participated in that survey placed education at the top of the list. Kindergarten through 12th grade were deemed to be a higher priority than post-secondary education, and Oregonians clearly were concerned not only about the quality of education, but also how the state was going to fund it. When you consider that one ranking by Education Week places Oregon 40th among states for academic achievement, it’s clear the public is correct to demand continuing improvement in this area.

The DHM research also shows that post-secondary education is vital to a broad spectrum of the population. Oregonians want greater accessibility and affordable tuition. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler has been the most assertive public official in suggesting ways to help Oregon residents afford the cost of college. The two major-party candidates for governor need to lay out their own plans with the same specificity Wheeler has.

The second-highest priority for Oregon residents is health care and healthy living, but their concerns are much broader than Cover Oregon, Oracle or Obamacare. Rising to the top of the health care list were wellness and personal responsibility. Oregonians advocated holding people accountable for high-risk behaviors — such as smoking, drug use or lack of exercise — through higher insurance premiums.

The survey also revealed that in 2013 the public did, in fact, want major changes to the existing health care system. Kitzhaber and Richardson certainly will talk about the failed website, but the public will want to hear Richardson describe how his approach to the larger issues of health care delivery and cost will differ from Kitzhaber.

It was no surprise to learn from the DHM survey that Oregonians are ardent supporters of the environment, but they also would like to see more robust economic growth. The survey revealed that 57 percent of Oregonians favored environmental protection at the risk of slowing economic growth — a majority to be sure, but not a strong one. Oregonians still need a much better economy for the state to be able to invest money in services such as public education.

Another issue that rises quickly to the surface is transportation, and the DHM survey reveals a split between urban and rural populations. Residents who live along the Interstate 5 corridor are more supportive of public transit projects, while rural residents place greater value on road and highway construction.

The issue of maintaining, improving and expanding Oregon’s transportation infrastructure is one the state’s next governor cannot ignore. While there is a need to find funding for big, expensive projects in the Portland metro area, including mass transit, the attention paid to Portland cannot come at the expense of the rest of the state. Oregon’s rural areas and their economies depend on the highway system as the only realistic link for business and personal transportation.

The issue of how to fund transportation projects is more than just asphalt and dollars and cents — it’s indicative of a governor’s bigger responsibility.

Oregon’s governor must represent the entire state, not just the areas with the most votes. This state’s residents have many common values and concerns — including education, health care and transportation — and the two leading candidates for governor would do well to directly address those key issues at every opportunity they have to debate.




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