A sharp divide revealed in first governor debate


News staff writer

July 19, 2006

The first debate between Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Republican challenger Ron Saxton last week foretold a lively campaign season.

Kulongoski accused Saxton, who specializes in business law, of furthering the interests of corporate giants at the expense of ordinary citizens.

“I represent working families and I always will,” he said.

Saxton, in turn, argued that Kulongoski was a career politician who favored big government and more taxes — which created economic hardship for families.

“This election is really a referendum on the governor’s performance,” he said.

The two candidates faced off at the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association convention in Welches on July 14. They fielded questions posed by a four-member panel on issues that ranged from off-reservation gaming to Measure 37 and funding for education.

Kirby Neumann-Rea, editor of the Hood River News, was seated on the panel. He was joined by Mark Garber from The Gresham Outlook, Bob Hunter with the Medford Mail Tribune and Julia Silverman, representing the Associated Press Newspaper Editors.

Neumann-Rea asked each candidate to address Oregon’s increasing dependence upon gambling dollars. In connection, he requested their respective stands on the proposal to site a tribal gambling casino in Cascade Locks.

“I do not favor gambling at all. I wish we had no gambling in the state. I think it is a terrible way to fund our schools and to me it’s an embarrassment,” said Saxton.

He said federal law allowed Native Americans to build a gaming facility on reservation land. But he, as governor, would never approve an off-reservation operation.

“I think it’s become an integral part of the funding mechanism for our state. It’s a way to offset Measure 5 (capping property taxes) and continue to fund our schools,” said Kulongoski.

He said Cascade Locks was preferable for a casino to eligible trust land owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs just east of Hood River. Kulongoski said it was better to locate gaming in a town that wanted the economic opportunities than near a city that was strongly opposed.

Saxton and Kulongoski were also sharply divided over the methodology for stabilizing school funding.

The governor said he will push for $6 billion in the 2007-09 budget for state schools and universities. He would like to see 61 percent of general fund dollars set aside for educational programs. Kulongoski said a skilled work force was an integral part of attracting new businesses that created job opportunities.

Saxton said Kulongoski had already increased school funding by $1 billion since taking office four years ago — but the system wasn’t working any better. He said more money would be available for education without burdening taxpayers if the state cut back on its expenditures by increasing efficiencies.

For example, Saxton said the public employee retirement system needed a complete overhaul. He said, in spite of recent reforms, Oregon outlaid more than three times the amount spent by neighboring Washington state for the program.

Kulongoski and Saxton were not far apart on their views about how Measure 37 should be implemented.

Saxton said the land-use rules imposed on Oregonians in the early 1970s had created unfairness. He believed that voters were demanding that the state right those wrongs. Therefore, he said officials needed to find a way to protect resource lands without penalizing property owners – or filling courtrooms with litigants.

“We need to go back to the core values of our land-use system and find a way to make it workable,” he said.

Kulongoski expressed strong support for Oregon’s zoning guidelines. He agreed that heavy-handed bureaucracy had created the unfairness that became the underlying drive behind Measure 37. He believed it was possible to restore the balance and retain the current resource protection standards.

“Our land-use system is about who we are, it’s what makes Oregon unique,” said Kulongoski.

Saxton tied some of the state’s problems with crowded roads to its land-use planning. He said many communities with stringent growth guidelines had made housing so expensive that workers were forced to live in outlying areas and commute every day. And that, he said, increased pollution and crowded highways that were already inadequate to transport goods from one market to another.

“These issues don’t fit in boxes, they are all interrelated,” said Saxton.

Kulongoski said the gas tax was inadequate to address the state’s many transportation challenges. He said a toll on roads in key travel corridors and an interstate bridge between Portland and Vancouver would provide funding for needed infrastructure upgrades.

Kulongoski and Saxton believed they were the only true contenders for the office in the Nov. 7 general election. They appeared unconcerned about challenges by Independent Ben Westlund, Constitutionalist Mary Starrett, Pacific Green Joe Keating or Libertarian Richard Morley.

“I don’t think either of us is spending a lot of time focusing on other candidates right now,” said Kulongoski.

“I think the next governor of Oregon is on the stage right here. This is where the leadership is going to come from,” said Saxton.

After an hour of discussion, he and Kulongoski gave closing arguments that summed up their differing political views.

“The governor wants to keep raising taxes when our research shows that a substantial number of Oregonians think they are worse off than they were four years ago. I believe state government must spend money more wisely and it is time for a change in leadership,” said Saxton.

“In the end this (race) is about the future, it is about who we are. I want to go forward and I think Ron Saxton sees the future through the rear view mirror. So the only way he can go is backward,” said Kulongoski.

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