Three from minor parties join Kitzhaber, Richardson at League of Oregon Cities forum.

EUGENE Candidates for governor weighed in Saturday on issues of concern to city officials, such as property tax limits and transportation funding, at the annual conference of the League of Oregon Cities.

But several candidates, mostly those from the minor parties, also provided moments of comic relief — some of them unintended — for the audience at the Eugene Community Conference Center.

The 75-minute forum has been the only one that scheduled not only Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican Dennis Richardson, but also the nominees of the Constitution, Pacific Green and Progressive parties. Libertarian Paul Grad was absent.

Candidates were furnished the four questions and the league’s policy positions in advance of Saturday’s forum.

One official likened the appearance of one of the minor-party candidates to "Jimmy Kimmel Live meets Trinity Broadcasting," the world's largest Christian network. But Tigard Mayor John Cook, without naming names, said afterward that some candidates should have been better prepared to respond to the questions.

Chris Henry of Portland, a truck driver who is the Progressive Party nominee, conceded he would have a "steep learning curve" in the unlikely event he were elected governor.

Property tax limits

Four of the five candidates favored one part of the league’s proposal to loosen the property tax limits that Oregon voters approved in the 1990s. The proposal would allow cities and other local governments, excluding schools, to seek voter approval of short-term levies beyond their combined rate limit of $10 per $1,000 of taxable property value. Schools have a separate limit of $5. Bond issues are exempt from the limits.

Under what is known as “compression,” Oregon local governments were barred from collecting $212 million authorized by voters this past year, according to a league report in July. Half of Oregon’s 242 cities, 34 of 36 counties and 90 percent of the 197 school districts are affected.

“I support local government having the ability to make decisions,” says Richardson, who was on the Central Point City Council in 2001 and 2002 before he was elected to the Oregon House.

“So I certainly would support the ability for us to implement a local levy if that was the decision by the people who are going to be affected by it.”

But Richardson, Pacific Green nominee Jason Levin and Progressive nominee Henry question the league’s other proposals. One would allow the taxable value of property to reset to its sales price, known as “real market value,” as is done under California’s 1978 limit known as Proposition 13. Under Oregon’s limit, growth is generally limited to 3 percent annually. The other would allow for a citywide average, rather than a countywide average, applied to the annual growth in taxable property values.

Kitzhaber says he supports the league’s proposals, several of which were presented to lawmakers in 2013 but did not advance. But any changes in the limits are likely to require a statewide election to amend the Oregon Constitution.

“These issues are not going to go away,” Kitzhaber says. “But we should not underestimate the difficulty.”

Only Aaron Auer, the Constitution Party nominee, was flatly opposed to any change. “We are overtaxed and over burdened,” he says.

Transportation funds

The league’s support for increased money for street maintenance and other transportation needs also met with a mixed reception.

“We can pass a transportation package without raising taxes,” Richardson asserted, by shifting a substantial portion of the state’s general bonding capacity. But that would move support of bonds from transportation-related sources, such as vehicle and licensing fees, to income taxes. Oregon started large-scale bonds for transportation needs in 2001-02, but repayments have been either from related sources or lottery proceeds.

Richardson says he would try to obtain more from the federal government, although Congress has been unable since 2009 to approve transportation spending for longer than two years. The latest extension runs through May.

Kitzhaber says a short-term increase in the state gasoline tax, now 30 cents per gallon, must be followed by longer-term funding for projects and maintenance through a West Coast exchange.

“The gas tax is not a long-term sustainable source of funding for our roads as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and more people take mass transit,” he says.

In a July report, the league said cities raised $120.7 million for street maintenance in 2012-13, but that’s $306 million less what they say they need.

Third-party candidates

Auer unintentionally triggered laughter when he brought up something said by a construction worker. “My wife ran into him the other day,” which drew a look of alarm from Richardson, who was seated to Auer's left.

Auer’s principal reason for his candidacy is to restore ties between religion, specifically Christianity, and state government as embodied in the Circuit Rider statue that sits east of the Capitol in Salem. Auer, who is from Aurora, is associated with ROAR (Restore Oregon’s Amazing Roots) Ministries.

Auer also drew laughter when he mentioned his turn to religion 30 years ago, after he felt heart palpitations while smoking marijuana.

Henry was the 2010 Pacific Green Party nominee for the 1st District congressional seat and the 2012 Progressive nominee for attorney general. “Running for public office has gotten in my way” of earning a degree from Portland State University, he says.

Henry's candidacy centers on opposition to Measure 90, which would allow the top two finishers in a primary to advance regardless of party.

Formerly a teacher in Beaverton, Levin says he is not a one-issue candidate, “and I don’t feel we’ve heard a lot of new ideas from the incumbent or his Republican challenger.”

Comparison draws rebuke

But when Levin attempted to compare Richardson and Kitzhaber to two recurring cartoon characters on “The Simpsons,” he drew a rebuke from the forum moderator, Mike McCarty.

Levin likened Richardson to Mr. Burns, saying his views on issues such as women’s reproductive rights and sexual orientation “belong in 1914, not 2014.”

As for Kitzhaber, Levin compared him to Mayor Quimby, “a career politician who will take a ‘kickback’ — I’m sorry, a contribution — from (Chairman) Phil Knight.” His reference was to Knight’s recent $250,000 contribution to Kitzhaber, two years after lawmakers approved a tax break for Nike in a special session.

“This is not about the other candidates,” said McCarty, the chief executive of the Association of Washington Cities. “It’s about your views on the issues.”

Neither Richardson nor Kitzhaber, who followed Levin in their closing statements, chose to respond to Levin.

Kitzhaber and Richardson are scheduled to meet Oct. 10 at the City Club of Portland, and on Oct. 14 at a broadcast sponsored by Portland television station KGW and The Oregonian. The other candidates are not invited.

In the latest Survey USA results, released Thursday by Portland television station KATU, Kitzhaber leads Richardson, 50 percent to 38 percent. Other candidates received 5 percent. The gap is similar to those in June and August polls.

Except for Julius Meier, an independent elected in 1930, every Oregon governor has been from one of the two major parties. The most recent substantial showing by a third-party candidate was 13 percent by independent Al Mobley in 1990, when Democrat Barbara Roberts was elected.

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Adds paragraph on League of Oregon Cities report on gap in street maintenance.

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