Republican Dennis Richardson, a 10-year state legislator from Central Point, is running for governor with a theme of “re-establishing the principles that made the state great.”
Freedom, opportunity and personal responsibility are the cornerstones of that, he said.
He wants people to have the “freedom to pursue your business and choose how you want to live and have success or failure based on your efforts.”
He is taking aim at how Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, now in his third term, has expanded the state benefits rolls.
“Are we better off than we were four years ago?”
Going back even farther, since Kitzhaber’s first term in 1996, Oregon has had higher unemployment and fewer workers.
“We do not need higher tax rates, we need more taxpayers,” Richardson said.
“Gov. Kitzhaber is a nice man, but he’s managing an ever widening bureaucracy. We need a governor that is out and promoting our economy and not sitting home and promoting greater dependency on government programs.”
In the last three years, he said, food stamp recipients have increased by 100,000. This is not connected to the recession, he said, because “other states are no longer in recession.”
The state is set to add 250,000 people to Medicaid rolls in the next two years, he said.
While these moves are insuring the most vulnerable have food and health care, “there is no plan for repayment of the cost,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the economic engine needed to generate the taxes to pay the benefits has faltered.
Oregon’s income was once 110 percent of the national average, but has fallen to 90 percent, he said. There are fewer jobs in the state than in 2000, yet the population is up 450,000.
The biggest job growth areas are health care, education and government, but many private sector areas have seen decreases, said Richardson.
“We have an economy that is languishing and the answer of our current governor is greater eligibility and greater dependency,” he said.
“So my campaign is focused on restoring Oregon’s position as an economic success story while maintaining the quality of life and the environment. It can be done.”
On the environmental front, he said the use of electric cars and hybrids and composting and bicycle riding that happens in Portland is “nullified by one forest fire” elsewhere in the state.
He wants the management of the 53 percent of Oregon’s land that is under federal ownership to be handled more at the state level, a call that is coming from multiple western states, which all have heavy federal ownership.
Allowing more harvesting of forest materials —from slash piles to the increasingly dense undergrowth that is turning wildfires into conflagrations — would not only benefit forests, but provide jobs, he said. The slash piles and undergrowth are merchantable timber, he said, that can be turned into stackable pallets or mulched into wood chips and mixed with resin for a strong, light and durable composite material.
Restrictions on foresting activities have led to a “slow strangulation of the rural economy,” he said.
Another potential area of job growth is found overseas. Richardson has a global view of Oregon’s economic export potential, owing to his role as a member of an annual trade delegation to China.
The massive middle class in China — nearly as big as the entire U.S. population — is looking for quality products to spend its money on, and China is the top importer of Oregon goods, from wheat to wine.
“Why go to China? Because that’s where the consumers are,” he said. Some $2 billion to $4 billion in Oregon goods are exported yearly to China.
As for state government, Richardson said the most visible and single biggest drain on government coffers of late, the funding of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), “must be fixed,”
“But it cannot be fixed by the current Democratic leadership,” he said. “They are too beholden to the unions. When your party is funded by the unions and the unions are not willing to accept reforms that affect current members, you can’t fix PERS. You can only tweak it.”
Richardson said he listened to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy on a recent trip to China. One phrase struck him in particular: “‘Before you can protect the sheep you must feed the wolves.’ That’s a very sobering reality that is true in all politics.” To him, that phrase as it applies to Oregon politics, means that “before you can implement common sense and a rational policy, you have to address the reality of power, and who’s in charge, who controls the power?”
The power holders, he said, are “the public employee unions. That is the reality of power.”
PERS, as it stands now, includes a $13 billion unfunded liability, he said. It represents “a 20-year mortgage over the heads of our local school districts and local governments.”
In a special session, the legislature got rid of a cost of living increase for better-off retirees. But not everything the legislature does can be seen as a contractual obligation in terms of retirement benefits, Richardson said.
He said the Oregon Supreme Court will decide what is and isn’t contractual. Every change to PERS is guaranteed to end up in court anyway, he said.
He said cost of living increases were first done by the state Legislature in 1971 “as a gift” and two years later, it rose to a 2 percent cost of living hike and has stayed there.
Another challenge is the practice of “spiking” where people nearing retirement are allowed to include unused leave and sick time benefits into their pay calculation. A study found 40 percent of increases in final pay — used to calculate retirement benefits — was due to spiking.
For Tier One employees, or those hired before 1996, the PERS system also guarantees an 8 percent annual return on investments, when a normal return is around 4 and a half to 5 percent, Richardson said.
He said, “80 percent of the problem is related to government workers hired before 1996.”
He said the retirement package amounts to a $1 million annuity “and they’ve never paid a dime into it.”
He said no other annuity would come with an 8 percent guaranteed return, a 2 percent annual cost of living increase, and no administrative fees. “It’s an incredibly sweet deal.”
“The cost of PERS becomes a debt that has to be paid off the top of every budget.” It has led to fewer school staff, and fewer school days, “and this goes on for the next 25 years,” he said.
On other issues, Richardson said he is a strong gun rights supporter and supports a more regional approach to land use laws, since a cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work for the entire state.
Richardson, a native of California who studied at Brigham Young University, is a retired attorney who flew helicopters in Vietnam.
For his efforts, Richardson was awarded a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry by the South Vietnamese Army. He was one of few Americans to have earned such an accommodation.
He and his wife have four daughters.