Governor candidates tangle again in statewide TV debate
The leading candidates for Oregon governor disagreed about a lot of things Tuesday night during their second joint appearance, which was broadcast throughout most of the state.
Among other things, they differed on how they would deal with the state budget if there is a downturn, which state economists now forecast as a possibility, either late in 2023 or early in 2024, at the start of the new governor's term. Though most of the next two-year state budget will be prepared under outgoing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, whoever is elected has until Feb. 1 to propose changes to the Legislature, which has the final say.
They debated for an hour on Portland television station KATU; ABC affiliates in Eugene and Medford also carried the broadcast to most of the rest of Oregon. Two more televised debates are scheduled.
The election is five weeks away on Nov. 8; ballots will be mailed later this month.
There were repeats from the previous week's debate in Bend.
Democrat Tina Kotek of Portland and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson of Scappoose support abortion rights, which were written into state law in 2017; Republican Christine Drazan of Canby does not.
Drazan and Johnson oppose Measure 114, which would require full background checks and firearms training for people to obtain gun permits. Kotek supports it.
Drazan and Johnson say they would urge the Legislature to refer a partial repeal of Measure 110, which voters approved in 2020 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of some drugs. Kotek said "we need to find a better way" to implement its drug-treatment provisions.
Drazan and Johnson seek to capitalize on public dissatisfaction, but Kotek said they cater to the political right and that she is the true champion of working families.
Preparing for downturn
Other issues came up, such as the state budget, state management and how it treats business.
Drazan said that under a decade of Democratic control in Salem, the tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds have doubled — the actual totals are $16.4 billion in 2013-15, and $26.9 billion in 2021-23 — in the two most flexible sources for the budget.
"That means if a recession comes, we are going to be in a difficult position to sustain those programs," she said. "Programs in Oregon absolutely have got to be restrained."
Drazan, a former minority leader of the Oregon House, did not specify what she would cut. But in her response, she called for less government spending.
"Frankly, the more government there is, the less opportunity there is for Oregonians to achieve their best and brightest future. All of us — all of us — pay for every bit of that government. We have got to save; we have got to limit the size and scope of government," she said.
"We've got to support jobs. That means we need to create a business-friendly environment in our state and ensure whatever we can do, we are actively recruiting new businesses here and supporting the ones that are here."
Drazan hopes to be the first Republican to win since 1982, when Vic Atiyeh was re-elected. Oregon voters have elected Democrats ever since in the longest streak by either major political party. However, only one of those 10 elections was a landslide for the Democrat.
Kotek said the emphasis should be on state aid that helps small businesses, such as child care — "Parents do not have the child care they need" — and capacity at Oregon's 17 community colleges to enable people to change jobs.
"I think the most important thing to do right now as our next governor is to take care of the businesses that are hurting at the moment — and those are our small businesses," said Kotek, who was speaker nine of her 15 years in the Oregon House.
"What I want to focus on to prepare for any kind of economic downturn is helping our small businesses. If there is a recession, they will be in a better spot to weather that."
She said both Drazan and Johnson, a former Democratic state legislator who is running unaffiliated with any party, want to cut funding for public schools. (It was not elaborated during the debate, but Drazan opposed — and Johnson said she has second thoughts about — the 2019 corporate activity tax that generates about $1 billion annually for targeted school improvements.)
A differing view
Johnson, who was Senate co-chair of the Oregon Legislature's budget committee for about three years, also did not specify what she would cut. But she said many of the programs generated in recent years, some with federal money, should be examined more closely.
"We need to scrub our budget to make sure that the programs we are funding are producing results, that they are efficacious and frankly, they are auditable," she said.
"Frankly, we spend an enormous amount of money on programs that I think (if they) were subjected to a true rigorous audit, not a partisan political audit, they would fail."
Though there is a legislative audit committee, most state audits are conducted by a division within the secretary of state, who is independently elected.
Johnson also echoed Drazan in a call for a more business-friendly state government.
"That business-friendly environment is an absolute necessity," she said. "In trying to site new businesses here, both in my own former legislative district and around the state, I have discovered that the word has gone out that Oregon is almost impossible to do business."
Johnson seeks to be only the second Oregon governor who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican — the only one was elected back in 1930 — but recent polling has Drazan and Kotek closely divided, with Johnson in third.
Fate of agencies
Later in the debate, KATU anchor Steve Dunn asked about the delays by the state Employment Department in paying unemployment claims at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when businesses closed or curtailed operations. During 2020, a record 580,000 Oregonians drew a total of $7.5 billion. A new computer system is being phased in.
Kotek said Brown took too long to fire the director — Brown had fired a previous director as well — and said legislative budget writers failed to press the issue of a new computer system to replace one that dates back to 1993. She pledged that agencies focus on customer service.
Johnson responded legislative presiding officers such as Kotek should have responded, and that multiple audits criticized the agency's slowness.
Drazan was more blunt: "I will fire Kate Brown's agency heads," although most submit resignations as a matter of course when a new governor takes office. (Some directors are appointed by commissions, although a governor could seek to replace members — who are subject to Senate confirmation, as are directors appointed by the governor.)
Johnson said Drazan was going too far, but she would talk with agency heads beforehand.
When Democrat John Kitznaber was elected to a record third term as governor in 2010, following his tenure between 1995 and 2003, he pledged to replace all agency directors. He did only a couple at first, but by 2014, almost all the agency heads were new.
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