PortlandTransport.com looks at the Oregon gubernatorial election between Democrat John Kitzhaber, and Republican Chris Dudley, and its potential affect on transit in the Portland area.
There are many issues on next Tuesday’s ballot which will or may impact transit in the Portland area. All Oregon citizens will be voting for a state representative, and half of us will be voting for a state Senator. All of us will will likewise have a pair of Congressional races to consider. And, there are numerous ballot measures to consider, and more than a handful of local officials to select as well.
There are three races which are of particular importance, and which aren’t limited to a particular part of the Portland area. One of them, the race for Metro President, was covered by PortlandTransport back in February (prior to the primary election), which you can read here, here, here, here, and here. More recently, we have covered Ballot Measure 26-119, the TriMet-sponsored proposal to renew the expiring Westside MAX levy for the purposes of various capital upgrades to the bus system, here and here.
Today we turn to a race in which transit politics have not played a big part in the campaign, but may have a big impact on TriMet and its future plans: the Oregon gubernatorial race, between Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley.
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Why is this race important?
Why is this race important? Oregon’s system of government does limit somewhat the executive ability of the governor–many executive functions are overseen by elected officials who don’t report to him or her, such as the secretary of state and the attorney general. Likewise, the gov has limited ability to intervene in local political matters. However, one interesting state of affairs is that despite being only serving the Portland metropolitan area, TriMet’s board is appointed by the governor. Board members, once appointed, ordinarily serve up to two four-year terms (and must be confirmed by the state Senate); but the Governor can fire and replace board members at any time.
Governors in Oregon have not often exercised their authority to replace TriMet board members out of cycle. In 1986, Vic Atiyeh replaced the entire board in one go; I don’t believe that it has happened since. But 2010 may be an unusual situation, given the economy, the general political instability in the country, and a rising lack of confidence in TriMet management in some quarters. There have been more than a few commentators on Portland politics, including longtime TriMet critic Jack Bogdanski, who seems to be leaning towards Dudley in the hopes that he would (among other things) do exactly that.
The two major party candidates are, of course, John Kitzhaber, a former ER physician who served as the state’s Governor from 1995 through 2003, and as president of the Oregon Senate prior to that; and Chris Dudley, a former professional basketball player (who played two separate stints for the Trail Blazers) who nowadays works as a financial adviser. Kitzhaber is FTMP a known quantity, given his prior service in the position; during his tenure TriMet built Westside MAX and the Red Line. Transit wasn’t Kitzhaber’s first priority as governor (his pet project was the Oregon Health Plan), but he was supportive of it. His prior career as an emergency room doctor did lead him to long oppose increasing the state’s speed limit, after the US Government repealed the 65MPH limit back in the 1990s; and he also has a credible record with environmentalists. In a statement to PortlandAfoot.com, a Kitzhaber spokesperson gave conditional support to Milwaukie MAX, stating:
John Kitzhaber respects the legislature and governor’s prior commitment to light rail, and he sees the benefit of jobs as an important reason to continue to support the project. Should new information arise that requires he and the legislature revisit this project, he will certainly do so, but until that time, he supports this important capital investment in Oregon’s future.
Much less is known about Dudley’s positions on transit. PortlandAfoot.com asked his campaign several pointed questions on the issues, including both MLR and whether Dudley might consider wholesale board replacements, and got non-answers. One of Dudley’s primary opponents, Allen Alley, came out against MLR during the primary season; and Dudley did not stake out a position in response. This can be seen as an improvement over gubernatorial candidates in other states, such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, both of whom are campaigning on pro-automobile, anti-transit (and anti-high-speed-rail) platforms. New Jersey governor Chris Christie has made quite a bit of news for his position on the ARC tunnel project. On the other hand, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Dudley a well-known entertainment personality who made the jump into politics under somewhat similar circumstances, has not been a hindrance to transit expansion in California’s metropoli. The focus of Dudley’s campaign has been fiscal issues: lower taxes and reduced state spending (in particular, reductions in wages and benefits for public employees), though he hasn’t given much indication of what would be cut–whether spending reductions would be across the board, or only targeted mainly to programs disliked by conservatives.
What could happen?
At the present time, the race appears to be a dead heat. Kitzhaber was generally popular during his first stint as Governor, and was free of major scandal; but spent eight years playing defense against a hostile legislature, and famously suggested that the state was “ungovernable” near the end of his second term, a remark which has haunted him somewhat in the second act of his political career. (Dudley was primarily known as a defensive player in the NBA–an observation offered only here for the sake of levity). Dudley is probably the first GOP gubernatorial candidate in quite a while not pushing a social conservative agenda–he’s generally avoided social issues, in contrast to many prominent Republican candidates elsewhere in the country. These factors, and the overall poor electoral environment for Democrats in general, suggest that this is in fact anybody’s race.
And whoever the next governor is, will have Portland-area transit issues on the agenda.
Last year, the Oregon Legislature granted the TriMet board the authority to increase the agency’s payroll tax, which TriMet has indicated it will do in 2014, prior to the planned opening of Milwaukie MAX. (The increase assumed in the financials section of the EIS). The authority is contingent on the Board finding that the state of Oregon no longer is in a state of recession. But 2014 will be near the end of the next governor’s term; and if the governor takes a more hostile position to transit (or to taxes in general), things could get interesting. The governor could, once again, replace the TriMet board en masse, nominating members who decline to do so. (As MLR would be nearly complete by that point, and cancelling it not a viable option; this would result in service cuts elsewhere on the system). Of course, Metro could respond to that by taking over TriMet, as it has the right to do under ORS 267.020.
Unlike Governor Christie in New Jersey, there is probably not much that an Oregon governor could do on his own to cancel MLR, even if he were to be opposed to the project. State funding has already been appropriated. The Legislature working with the governor would be another matter–it wouldn’t be difficult for a motivated legislature to withdraw the appropriation and scuttle the project. There isn’t much polling on the Oregon legislative races, though–I expect the GOP to pick up a few seats, but I would be astonished were the GOP to take control of both houses of the Legislative Assembly.
Like it says up at the top, this blog is a non-profit corporation, and cannot explicitly endorse either candidate. However, we can–and I do–encourage all of you to vote, regardless of who you are voting for. It is, after all, the ultimate expression of the public’s will; and even though we often love to gripe about the government; we ultimately get the government that we select–and deserve.
So if you haven’t done so, mail in those ballots.