Oregon’s Gov. candidates face off in Eugene debate

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Gov. Kate Brown was bullish in defending her record as governor and her decision to endorse Measure 97, the proposed major corporate tax increase, during the third gubernatorial debate, held Thursday at Churchill High School in Eugene.

Measure 97, the Portland Democrat said, would help reduce public school classroom sizes and help pay for the recent expansion of the Oregon Health Plan, which provided health insurance to 400,000 new people.

“We’ve made so much progress,” she said. “I’m not willing to go backwards.”

Brown’s main challenger, Republican Bud Pierce, critiqued Brown’s record on public education, saying that Oregon’s schools slipped substantially in national rankings during her many years in the Legislature.

Still reeling from the widespread criticism that followed his comment last week that better-­educated women were less vulnerable to domestic violence, Pierce generally was subdued in his criticism of the incumbent.

Cliff Thomason, a Grants Pass Realtor, hemp farmer and the Independent Party candidate, made his first appearance in a gubernatorial debate Thursday. He used the opportunity to say that all high school students should get equivalency diplomas (GEDs) after their sophomore year, and that the state should promote the use of hemp in biofuels.

The event, hosted by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the League of Women Voters of Lane County, filled about two-thirds of the auditorium at Churchill, with many students in attendance. The debate moderator was Dave Miller, host of the OPB radio news show “Think Out Loud.”

Pierce’s comment last week, that women with “great education and training and a great job” aren’t as susceptible to domestic violence, has become a key talking point in the race.

At an earlier press conference, Pierce again apologized for the remark, saying it was because of a “blind spot” in his personal knowledge and that he was unaware that so many women are victims of domestic violence. He said he didn’t think the statement made him any less qualified to be Oregon’s governor.

“People know me as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, flaws and all,” Pierce said at the press conference. “I am running as a citizen, not as a machine.”

He also noted the incident had “helped my name recognition” with voters.

Brown, who revealed last week that she had been a victim of domestic violence, was unwilling to let Pierce off the hook Thursday. She said his statement had “traumatized” her. She declined to reveal details about her experience, saying only that it was “very painful.”

Voters should decide “if you want someone who spent the weekend learning about this issue, or someone who has spent her whole life” working on problems linked to domestic violence, Brown said.

Pierce pressed Brown on the need for the governor and lawmakers to reform the Public Employee Retirement System to help control the system’s cost. Pierce said he supports changes to how public employees’ final salaries are calculated for pension purposes, in order to reduce the practice of “spiking” to inflate retirement benefits. He also wants to lower guaranteed investment returns for workers who retire under the “Money Match” formula.

Ultimately, though, public employees who don’t contribute any part of their paychecks to their retirement costs need to start doing so, Pierce added. “Over time, some money is going to have to be in there from the employees,” he said.

Brown said she was only open to PERS changes that are “legally viable.” But, she added, “when I hear (Pierce’s) proposals, I hear lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit … back on the hamster wheel,” referring to previous reforms that were ruled illegal.

Asked whether for-profit companies should be allowed to run the coordinated care organizations, which distribute Medicaid dollars to low-­income Oregonians, Brown was the only candidate to say no. The issue has surfaced after it was revealed that the sale of for-profit Trillium, Lane County’s CCO, netted a handful of shareholders millions of dollars.

Brown said she was troubled by that news and her office “is taking a look at and thinking about” whether for-profit companies should run CCOs.

“My primary focus is making sure that all Ore­gonians have access to health care,” she added.

Thomason, meanwhile, said he opposes Measure 97 and would like to raise funding for government services in Oregon with a sales tax, coupled with tax cuts in other areas. “If we ever want tuition-­free colleges or single-payer health insurance, we need to do that,” he said.

Asked why he thinks that approach, which has been voted down by Oregonians several times before, might now work, Thomason responded: “Because I’m asking them.”

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