The race for secretary of state is — let’s be honest — usually a snoozer. The office performs some crucial functions, from overseeing elections to redistricting when the Legislature isn’t 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: He’s proposed to use the office to call attention to the burden Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System places on cities, school districts and other local public entities. “They’re the ones who are really feeling the impacts” of increasing PERS contributions, he says.

Buehler intends to use the office’s audit function to this end, looking first at municipalities “most at risk,” then using the office’s bully pulpit, such as it is, to “let people know that this is a big, important issue.”

The Buehler campaign’s 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 state’s 36 counties. That report lists PERS liabilities, she says, but doesn’t delve into greater detail.

In response to Buehler’s proposal, Brown says she’d be concerned about using the office’s 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.”

Brown’s concerns are reasonable, and it isn’t clear how, or whether, Buehler’s plan would address them. His campaign plans to release more detail in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Buehler isn’t 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. Buehler’s 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 Buehler’s PERS-awareness push this summer, and some will argue (with justification) that he’s trying to boost his profile by latching onto a hot topic that doesn’t have much to do with the core function of the secretary of state’s office. To which we say, so what? If he wins, he certainly won’t 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 didn’t prevent OHSU President Joe Robertson from seeking to end the practice of paying employees’ 6 percent annual contributions to the Public Employees Retirement Fund.

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