Editorial: Governor talks good line, but actions speak louder than words

It’s a little bit of a shot in the arm to have the governor pay us a visit in rural Linn County.

We appreciated Gov. Kate Brown’s visit last week (page 1), which was more than just a photo op. She seemed genuinely interested in some of the challenges we face here – though she hasn’t been to Sweet Home yet.

She did make stops at Linn-Benton Community College’s Advanced Transportation Technology Center and at the Edward C. Allworth Oregon Veterans Home in Lebanon. She also faced a crowd of upwards of 275 people, not all of whom were in a friendly mood.

She deserves credit for that, especially for devoting 40 minutes to an open Q&A.

She also demonstrated some slick political savvy, at one point belaying a tough question about her proposed budget for veterans affairs, which has provoked harsh responses, into the observation that “I know there are a lot of vets in the room right now. Could we just give them applause?” That resulted in a somewhat enthusiastic round of hand-clapping that ended when she moved on to another question – without really explaining the reasoning behind that veterans funding proposal.

We’ve criticized Gov. Brown in the past on this page, suggesting that she could do more to address the real needs of this state instead of focusing so heavily on Oregon’s sanctuary state designation and issues like whether the Elliott State Forest should remain in public ownership.

Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that the Trump Administration’s forward attempts to stem illegal immigration and deport problem non-citizens have and will continue to create challenges on all sides – fear, broken families, agricultural employers who may find themselves in a real bind when harvest time rolls around, etc. The tack taken by Trump has created problems and it’s part of the governor’s job to address those.

But meanwhile, legal citizens of Oregon, particularly those in the rural regions, struggle with realities in which we don’t think Brown is well-enough versed. It’s one thing to stand behind a podium and talk about the need to boost the economy and make schools better. It’s another to see the effects of poverty up close, as citizens of Sweet Home do daily, and then come up with answers that make a difference.

At the risk of sounding disparaging, a lot of the governor’s remarks during her visit Friday sounded good until we looked for specifics.

It’s great to talk about making schools better, but that’s the same mantra that’s been repeated for decades in Oregon. Granted, it’s possible that all-day kindergarten may truly help youngsters, particularly those who otherwise would be unprepared for first grade, get a leg up on school. But when we look at Oregon’s high school drop-out rates, which are the third-worst in the nation and are again on the rise after dipping during the recession, we wonder what it’s going to take to make things right.

Brown acknowledged, we think rightly, that increased focus on trades and technical education might help that problem. She gave the example of her own stepson, who didn’t do well in a traditional school model, but now is gainfully employed after getting a GED.

The fact is, two-thirds of the state’s voters approved Measure 98 in the last election, which required that the state fund dropout prevention and career and college readiness programs in Oregon high schools. The problem, of course, is that the measure didn’t provide for funding – among other weaknesses, and the legislature is pondering a $1.8 billion budget gap. So we’re going to have to wait and see how far Measure 98 will take us.

Brown was also bullish on healthcare, trumpeting the fact that 95 percent of adults and 98 percent of children now have health coverage.

That is terrific. Many of us here in Sweet Home have benefited from Obamacare, with increased access to medical insurance. The problem though, which Brown really didn’t address, remains: how to pay for it? Amidst the hoopla, the bills have to be paid and that $1.8 billion figure means we don’t have a lot of money to throw around. Brown and the legislature have to come up with answers if they want to keep this healthy.

When she discussed Oregon’s economic issues, we appreciated hearing her acknowledge that things aren’t going as well in rural communities as in the urban centers, where our GDP leads the nation. Most readers of this newspaper don’t live in Portland and we don’t have to look much farther than out our own windows to see the effects of poverty.

Happy talk sounds good, but that’s it. What Brown needs to do is find ways to provide incentives for people to start businesses, hire employees and create jobs. She also needs to give people reasons to go to work. The story one attendee told of her own stepson, who refuses to get a job but has better healthcare than she does as a small business owner in Lebanon, is telling. Responsible government does not make it easy for citizens to game provisions intended to help those truly in need.

Granted, Brown can’t do all this on her own. But the sorry record of Oregon’s leaders in recent decades – leaving us with debacles such as PERS, Cover Oregon, the shortfalls of our educational system – from kindergarten through college, transportation tie-ups, the ongoing economic problems of rural communities, etc., etc. make us pine for a leader who can enact genuine solutions to these problems.

Gov. Brown is engaging and clearly very intelligent, but it remains to be seen how that translates into effective leadership as our state addresses its challenges.

In the end, it’s actions that matter, not glib one-liners. We’re also fully aware that answers to Oregon’s problems will not be easy. Change can be painful and ultimately, it has to be the people of Oregon who demand change – whether it be at the ballot box or in meetings with public officials such as the governor.