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Change begins at the top
Oregon voters should elect Republican Ron Saxton to replace Ted Kulongoski as the state's governor

October 15, 2006 The Oregonian editorial

 Ron Saxton opens many of his campaign appearances with a question: Are you satisfied with Oregon and its state government?

We're not.

This state has slipped and fallen. School funding is below the national average. Oregon is near the bottom in public support of universities. The number of troopers patrolling highways is only half of what the state mustered 30 years ago. Oregon's system of public finance is a mess, and Oregon, virtually alone among states, has no rainy day fund.

Worse, many Oregonians seem unwilling to lift a finger, or spend another dime, to remedy these problems. There is a weariness in Oregon and a deep cynicism of government. It seems there is nothing constructive voters would agree to right now, not more money for schools or health care, and certainly not reform of the state's flawed tax system.

Oregon cannot go on this way. This state must change, and the change must begin at the top: Voters should elect Ron Saxton as the next governor.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski is a good man, an honest and compassionate leader with a compelling life story who, over the past 30 years, has served in all three branches of Oregon government.

But Oregon needs new energy, new blood, new ideas and a determination to get them done. And only Saxton, the most capable Republican candidate for Oregon governor in the 24 years that Democrats have held the job, promises to bring that passion for change to the executive office.

History will be much kinder to Kulongoski's record than the multimillion-dollar air war Saxton has waged. Kulongoski led Oregon through four difficult years. The economy was still in free fall and the state budget was awash in red ink when he took office. Right away, he was confronted with a public pension system with $17 billion in unfunded liabilities.

He cut public pensions over the objections of the labor unions that had supported him his entire public life. Whatever happens in this election, Oregonians owe Kulongoski their thanks for his courage to do what had to be done for the good of the state.

Scandal and war also haunted Kulongoski's term. The man he chose to lead a higher education renaissance, former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, was exposed for his long ago sexual abuse of a teen-age girl. Goldschmidt's reputation was shattered -- and so was Kulongoski's faith in a man who had long been his political role model.

The Oregon deaths from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have scarred Kulongoski's years in office. Kulongoski, himself a former Marine, has attended memorial services for nearly all of the more than 75 Oregon servicemen and women who have lost their lives. No elected official anywhere has shown more compassion and respect for the soldiers and Marines and their families.

Recent years have been full of challenges, though, and Kulongoski has met some but not others. He hasn't assembled a consistently strong staff. He hasn't worked effectively with the Legislature. Major areas of state government, notably the $9 billion Department of Human Services, have seen a parade of directors and years of poor fiscal management.

Most important, he hasn't persuaded the Legislature or voters to follow his lead. There's no reason to believe that will change. His approval rating is among the lowest of U.S. governors. The Legislature, like the state at large, is full of people ready to challenge him on his spending priorities.

Is there anyone, for example, who believes most lawmakers, or voters, would support Kulongoski's proposed tax on auto insurance to fund the state police patrol? That leads us to worry that two years into another Kulongoski term, the state police would be no better off than they are today.

Saxton, meanwhile, is eager to pursue creative, even controversial, ways to make available dollars stretch further. He doesn't believe the only choice is a new insurance tax, or the same shrunken state patrol. He's ready to attack the health care costs eroding education budgets. He's prepared to experiment with outsourcing some state administrative tasks to save money and be more effective. He's willing to go looking for cost savings, efficiencies and innovations where no Oregon governor has gone over the past two decades.

It is worth noting that Saxton was the first major political figure in Oregon to demand the reforms of the Public Employees Retirement System that over time will preserve several billion dollars for public services.

Saxton argues he is ready to govern with the revenue Oregon has, not with money he might wish it has. He says he can combine the healthy additional income now pouring into state coffers -- an estimated $2 billion in the next budget cycle -- with spending efficiencies to find money to make investments in education and public safety while simultaneously cutting capital gains and estate taxes.

As it stands, those numbers don't add up if Oregonians take up Saxton's invitation to pass Measure 41, which would cut income tax revenues by about $800 million a biennium. If 41 passes, Saxton would drop his capital-gains and estate-tax plans. It's not clear either whether he would use the $200 million corporate kicker to begin building a rainy day fund. We think he should.

We differ with Saxton on some other policy issues, too. Yet on the core issues -- strengthening education, bolstering the police and restoring the trust of voters -- Saxton stands just where Oregon's next governor must stand.

Saxton has a demonstrably strong record on education, the central issue of the 2006 campaign. He co-founded the Portland Schools Foundation. He is one of the very few top private sector leaders in Portland, or anywhere in this state, to give hundreds and hundreds of hours of his time and expertise to the local school board. He supports education spending reforms because he's determined to get more money where it absolutely belongs: in the classroom.

It is a leap of faith to endorse a former school board chairman over a sitting governor. If all was well, we would recommend that voters re-elect Kulongoski. But the times demand a fresh look at Oregon's problems and Saxton brings an open, independent mind to the task. We recommend that voters select him as their next governor.


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