Richardson was first greeted in the Main Mall by representatives from Mt. Hood’s Associated Student Government, who had prepared a welcome banner. From there, he toured the campus, dropping in on Janet Campbell’s International Relations class, meeting with MHCC President Debbie Derr and members of ASG and the Student Organizations Council, and than sitting down with the Advocate staff.
In Campbell’s class, the secretary discussed running an underdog campaign (he’s the first GOP candidate to win a statewide election since 2002), as well as some of the impetus behind getting into politics in the first place:
“In 1996, I was reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and it just struck me that here was a guy that at 80 years old was an ambassador to France,” Richardson said. “He wouldn’t see his wife for years… I was impressed.
“Here was a guy that had essentially divided his life in half: The first 50 years, you take from society. You take your education, you build your family, you have your kids, you build your business… and (then) spend the second half of your life serving, giving back to the community,” he said.
After serving on his local city council, Richardson went on to serve as a state legislator for 12 years in Oregon’s House of Representatives. In 2014, he ran for governor on an anti-corruption platform against Democrat incumbent John Kitzhaber. Richardson lost the election, and Kitzhaber resigned three months later amid a corruption scandal.
Regarding party politics, Richardson said he thought his position should not be a partisan job.
“I believe that the work that the Secretary of State does should have no effect on party,” he said. “For instance… I was able to restore the right to receive a ballot for more than 60,000 registered Oregon voters. (He recently extended the time an inactive voter would remain eligible to vote from five to 10 years.) That is not a ‘Republican’ action.”
Richardson did, however, lament the degree of party politics present in deliberations in Salem, specifically regarding the controversial Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). “There (are) things that can be done for the future, and there (are) things that can be done to save money, but there’s not the political will to do it, so very little will be done.”
Pension benefits for state employees under PERS are currently critically unfunded, to the tune of $22 billion or $23 billion, according to Richardson. He said the problem will be “solved” in another 25 years when Tier 1 candidates (those employees hired before 1996) “die off,” but “in the meantime, your (Oregon’s) pension payments are viewed like a mortgage: They come off the top of your budget, so you can see a community college get an increase in money but have a decrease in fungible money – money you can actually spend – because so much has to go to the PERS plan.
“This is not going away.”
Richardson asked Derr how she felt about how state budget discussions were going, to which she replied “Not really good.
“For us, when we look at the big budget picture, when the tax cap in the ’90s was passed (a lid on property tax increases), the amount of property taxes that we receive has been fairly constant, has not gone up,” Derr said. “And so state support was supposed to make up that difference and it hasn’t, and so now our students actually pay more of their educational expenses (through tuition and fees) than the state.”
As a nonvoting member of the State Board of Education, the secretary said that these “across-the-board” state budget cuts were “like a doctor saying we’re gonna amputate without having a diagnosis, it’s gonna be fatal to the patient… Because you don’t just cut without knowing what you’re cutting.
“When I was co-chair (of the Ways and Means Committee (the Legislature’s budget-writing committee), we passed the K12 budget as the first budget,” helping to protect students from similar threats, he said.
Richardson went on to discuss “areas of waste” in government spending.
“We are in the process of an audit of the Oregon Health Authority, which is asking for 70-some million dollars of additional money. I think it’s important for the people to know what they’re already spending is being used (on), and where it’s being done efficiently and where there’s room for improvement,” he said. “What I’m finding is that everyone at the agency means well, and it’s very complicated what they’re doing, but there’s a lot of money being burned through under the banner of ‘We’re doing good.’
“But it’s not just enough to do good; (you also have to) do it efficiently.”