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Kitzhaber Defends Death Row Stance, Presses Case For Govt. Reforms

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber pressed his case for cost savings in government and other reforms, in an hour-long OPB interview at the City Club of Portland Friday.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber talks to the Portland City Club March 15, 2013.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber talks to the Portland City Club March 15, 2013.

Michael Clapp/OPB

Kitzhaber also repeated his call for a statewide debate on the death penalty, a day after the Oregon Supreme Court heard arguments over the governor’s reprieve of death row inmate Gary Haugen.

Kitzhaber answered questions from David Miller, the host of OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” Miller asked Kitzhaber what he’d do if a court ruling doesn’t go his way.

“If the Supreme Court decides that your reprieve is, in fact, valid – will you commute his sentence?”

John Kitzhaber: “No, but I will not execute him either. I don’t know if you understand the process here. Your phone rings with a code – to make sure it’s you, and they say ‘is there any reason this execution should not take place?’ And you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And I’ve said ‘no’ twice. And you sit there, by yourself, for three or four minutes, knowing what’s going on, and you’re the only person who can stop it. And it’s pretty easy to be ‘for’ capital punishment, when you’re not the one who has to carry that out, and has to do that moral questioning. If they call me, I will say’yes’ — there is a reason this execution should not be carried out. I don’t, however, believe that will be the decision of the Oregon Supreme Court.”

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber talks to the Portland City Club March 15, 2013.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber talks to the Portland City Club March 15, 2013.

Michael Clapp/OPB

Miller also asked Kitzhaber about the state budget. The governor sees the prison system, health care and public pensions as places where the government can save money.

Legislators are looking at bills to move ahead on some of the governor’s cost-saving efforts. The governor’s budget, and the legislative proposals from both Democrats and Republicans anticipate saving hundreds of millions of dollars by trimming costs to the Public Employee Retirement System. Miller asked Kitzhaber whether it’s fair to public employees to cut retirement benefits they were promised.

Kitzhaber: “Well, in one sense, it’s not – these were commitments that were made. But let me put this in a larger context — every person in this room is expecting fully funded health care when they turn 65. The cost of Medicare is driving our national debt. It will force us to a default, unless this federal government – the Congress and the administration – address the cost of health care. So, the fact of the matter is – we can make commitments – and we all do that at certain points in our lives, and we need to respect those commitments. But at some point, if they become financially unsustainable, if the choice is, to fulfill these commitments and short-change our kids — to me that is a troublesome issue. So, yes, there’s a fairness question, no question about it. I acknowledge that. But I also think acknowledging it doesn’t address the fundamental issue, that we have a generation of kids who are likely to be worse off than we, for the first time in our history. And we need to invest in those children, and in their futures, which is really an investment in our workforce and in our larger success, and quite frankly in the people who can earn a wage to support the growing retired population.”

Kitzhaber also took up higher education. A national report earlier this week identified Oregon as the state with the fastest-growing enrollment in public universities. The same report found Oregon as one of the poorest funded university systems – a mantra higher ed advocates have repeated for years. Kitzhaber responded to questions raised by the report this way:

“You can look around the country today, and there’s not a world-class university that doesn’t have a lot of private resources helping support it. That’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at the idea,” he said.

Kitzhaber said he supports expanding the use of online education at the university level. And he said he supports a concept backed by Treasurer Ted Wheeler — to use the state’s bonding authority to provide financial aid to eligible college students.


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