Dem. rivals say governor failed to lead

Incumbent Ted Kulongoski faced a barrage of criticism from his two Democratic rivals who said the governor has failed to provide Oregon the leadership it needs during a televised debate yesterday.

Challengers Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson and former State Treasurer Jim Hill attacked Kulongoski’s handling of public employee pensions, the Oregon Health Plan and the state tax system during the debate, which aired on KGW channel 8 at 7 p.m. Monday.

“We have the same problems now that we did four years ago, and actually some of them have gotten worse,” Hill said of Kulongoski’s first term as governor.

Kulongoski defended himself by saying that his governorship has been during one of the most difficult periods in Oregon’s history. When he was elected, he said, the state was facing massive budget shortfalls, high unemployment and one of the highest hunger rates in the country.

During his governorship, he has created 100,000 new jobs, reduced the hunger rate to 5.4 percent and the state is beginning to see more revenue pour in from economic improvement, Kulongoski said.

“I have taken this state through some difficult times,” he said. “We are better off.”

While the two challengers were not unified on every issue, they focused most of their criticisms on the incumbent, assailing his healthcare policy and handling of the state budget.

When Kulongoski answered a question about thousands dropping from the Oregon Health Plan’s rolls by saying that the federal government should play a larger roll, Sorenson called it “ridiculous” to expect the Bush administration to prioritize national healthcare.

Hill also said that public healthcare should be a bigger priority in the state,

“Our goal should be moving toward universal healthcare for all Oregonians,” Hill said.

Sorenson and Hill also called for change to Oregon’s tax system, and criticized Kulongoski for failing to bring “stability” to the state budget.

Oregon should have a more progressive tax structure, Sorenson said, where corporations shoulder more of the tax burden.

Hill said that the state should establish a rainy day fund to help the budget through times of economic downturn.

“Even squirrels understand putting nuts away for a bad day,” Hill said.

Only Kulongoski appeared to support a sales tax in Oregon, saying the state should reduce income taxes and increase “consumption taxes” to achieve a stable tax system.

Both Hill and Sorenson said that Oregon should invest more money in research at state universities, in order to attract more high tech business, while Kulongoski attempted to demonstrate that he has already been successful at investing in research in the state. The governor pointed to the Oregon Nanotech and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), a collaboration between state universities and other researchers, as an example of his success.

Sorenson and Hill also criticized Kulongoski’s handling of Oregon’s role in the Iraq war. The governor should have been more outspoken in his opposition to the war, Sorenson said. Both Sorenson and Hill also attempted to make calls for Oregon troops to return home, to which Kulongoski had a simple reply.

“There are no Oregon National Guard troops in Iraq today,” the governor said, although some are still in Kuwait.

For the one-hour debate, the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates answered questions from representatives of local media, Vince Patton of KGW Channel 8, Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian, Wilson Chow of Northwest Cable News and Brad Cain of the Associated Press. Portland State debate coach Chris Richter served as timekeeper for the event.