The race for secretary of state is lets be honest usually a snoozer. The office performs some crucial functions, from overseeing elections to redistricting when the Legislature isnt up to the job. But the office-holder operates with near invisibility most of the time, and elections generate a commensurate level of excitement.
Republican challenger Knute Buehler has taken a tack that should generate at least some discussion: Hes proposed to use the office to call attention to the burden Oregons Public Employees Retirement System places on cities, school districts and other local public entities. Theyre the ones who are really feeling the impacts of increasing PERS contributions, he says.
Buehler intends to use the offices audit function to this end, looking first at municipalities most at risk, then using the offices bully pulpit, such as it is, to let people know that this is a big, important issue.
The Buehler campaigns Web site makes the point more bluntly: Oregon needs a statewide elected official to lead the review and reform of PERS.
Incumbent Democrat Kate Brown says her office already provides some PERS-related scrutiny, including a recently completed financial-condition report of the states 36 counties. That report lists PERS liabilities, she says, but doesnt delve into greater detail.
In response to Buehlers proposal, Brown says shed be concerned about using the offices audit function as a political tool. I think that would undermine confidence in our work, its independence and its objectivity, she says. I would be concerned about using the auditing function to advance a political agenda.
Browns concerns are reasonable, and it isnt clear how, or whether, Buehlers plan would address them. His campaign plans to release more detail in a few weeks.
In the meantime, Buehler isnt overly concerned with conventional wisdom, which is, he says, to throw your hands up and say little can be done to contain PERS costs thanks to court rulings that invalidated some of the reforms adopted by the state Legislature in 2003. Buehlers campaign points out that Brown, then a state legislator, voted against House Bill 2003, a major part of the PERS-reform effort. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, signed it into law.
Voters will hear more about Buehlers PERS-awareness push this summer, and some will argue (with justification) that hes trying to boost his profile by latching onto a hot topic that doesnt have much to do with the core function of the secretary of states office. To which we say, so what? If he wins, he certainly wont be the first secretary of state to use the office to push larger issues.
So, bring on the PERS discussion. If enough people who hold and aspire to public office in Oregon start treating the PERS problem as seriously as it deserves to be treated, maybe the conventional wisdom Buehler mentions can be upended. It certainly didnt prevent OHSU President Joe Robertson from seeking to end the practice of paying employees 6 percent annual contributions to the Public Employees Retirement Fund.