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Our Opinion: Big issues await Kitzhaber-Richardson race

If not for his inattention to a few important matters, Gov. John Kitzhaber would be waltzing toward a fourth term in office.

Instead, the governor — freshly nominated by fellow Democrats in Tuesday’s primary election — finds himself with an actual competition on his hands. Kitzhaber’s opponent is Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson, who also won his party’s nomination on Tuesday.

Richardson is hardly a household name in this state, but he does possess the minimum credentials necessary to make a run for statewide office. Plus, he is doing so at a time when Kitzhaber fatigue has spread beyond Republicans and independents to include many Democrats who wonder what the governor still can contribute after 12 nonconsecutive years of rolling out his sometimes-great notions.

A recent poll conducted by DHM Research for Oregon Public Broadcasting reveals Kitzhaber’s potential vulnerability. Although the poll shows Kitzhaber with a 12-point lead over the little-known Richardson, only 35 percent of those surveyed believe Kitzhaber deserves to be re-elected. By contrast, 49 percent said he should be replaced.

A year ago, Kitzhaber looked so unbeatable that no top-tier Republican was willing to risk a run for governor. That was before the Cover Oregon website fiasco, which came on top of his failed but expensive one-year experiment with Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew.

During the May GOP primary, in which he faced no serious opposition, Richardson already was focusing on the fall election and reciting a trio of supposed Kitzhaber failures: Cover Oregon, former education czar Crew and the money that ultimately was wasted on a Columbia River Crossing that won’t be built.

Kitzhaber, for his part, has a ready-made rebuttal on each of those points, but we don’t believe the fall campaign should be solely about the governor’s shortcomings. Certainly, Kitzhaber’s competence in office is a legitimate issue, but Oregonians will be more interested in knowing what either Richardson or Kitzhaber will do to continue the progress the state is making with the economy, health care and education.

The big issues voters ought to care about include:

• Fulfilling Oregon’s promise — one that it simply cannot afford to break — to make a significant dent in the inflation rate for health care. If the state lives up to its vow, it will save hundreds of millions of dollars for state government’s non-health care related programs. If it falls short of its objective, it will blow a huge hole in the state’s finances.

• Achieving bold goals in education. The state has pledged to have 100 percent of students graduate from high school by 2025, with 40 percent then graduating from a university and 40 percent obtaining a two-year degree or certification. This goal requires continual investment and monitoring for the K-12 student population, but it also means that college must be accessible and affordable for a much larger number of Oregonians than currently is the case.

• Investing in highways, bridges, mass transit and other modes of transportation. The 2015 Legislature likely will consider a major infrastructure package. Where do Richardson and Kitzhaber stand on this issue, and how hard will they push for transportation funding?

• Leveling the peaks and valleys in state finances. Before he began to stumble with Cover Oregon, Kitzhaber was building political capital for a discussion about tax reform. It seems highly unlikely that Oregon voters will have much enthusiasm for that topic, no matter who is elected governor. At best, the next governor should work toward incremental changes that bring greater stability to Oregon’s government finances, but that stop short of a sure-to-be-doomed quest for a statewide sales tax.

The issues of education, health care, transportation and taxes deserve thorough debate in the race between Kitzhaber and Richardson. It’s fortunate in a sense that Kitzhaber now will have have to engage with his opponent, instead of just riding his name and reputation into a fourth term.

While no one should celebrate the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on the Cover Oregon website, that particular debacle has created a race where there wasn’t one before. Richardson is still the underdog, but he has an opening to make his case — and Oregon voters have a chance to hear competing visions for this state’s future.