We didn't think we'd see State Treasurer Ted Wheeler out on the campaign trail for another two years. He won election in the last cycle to a full four-year term after being appointed in 2010 to replace Ben Westlund, who had died in office.
But expect to see him campaigning this fall for an audacious plan for Oregon to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to finance college scholarships.
His "Opportunity Initiative," which will appear on the November ballot, marks an aggressive step forward for Wheeler, 51, a normally risk-averse politician who serves as the state's banker.
The Treasury would invest the borrowed money and use the earnings to pay for scholarships and grants. The money would be constitutionally protected so it couldn't be used for other purposes. Taxpayers, meanwhile, would cover the debt payments through the state's general fund, the same account that pays for schools, prisons and social services.
The plan is a financial gamble, and there's no guarantee lawmakers would fund it, even if voters say yes. But talking up college costs—and proposing a state fund to help cover them—raises Wheeler's profile as he considers a campaign for governor in 2018.
We asked him about his plan, about a future run for governor, and whether he should have moved faster to shut down the Columbia River Crossing project.
WW: So what exactly is this "Opportunity Initiative" that you are pushing?
Ted Wheeler: The Oregon Opportunity Initiative is a long-term plan around workforce development. The purpose of it is to create a permanent, growing, locked endowment dedicated to two things. The first is need-based student aid, for those who wish to go to a university or a community college. The second thing it does is create support to incentivize and grow vocational and technical training programs at the community-college level.
No other state is doing this. What's your rationale?
Oregon currently has a bimodal economy. There are a lot of jobs—professional, skilled jobs—that pay well. There are a lot of jobs that don't require a lot of skills and do not pay particularly well. But there is not a whole lot in the middle. Our goal should be to jump-start people from the lower end of the economic spectrum into the higher end. The only reliable way to do that is through skills training.
What's wrong with our current approach?
Right now, we have what I'll call "the evil twins" when it comes to advanced training and education: We are a high-cost, low-student-aid state. The cost to students and their families of higher education has grown 50 percent over a recent eight-year period.
At the same time, the student-aid program in this state by any measure is anemic: Only one out of every five students who qualify and apply for the Oregon Opportunity Grant program gets anything.
Isn't borrowing money to invest in stocks a risky way to address that problem?
The question is, do you make money? You'll have good years and you'll have bad years, but the expectation is that over a 30-year period, you will actually have positive growth in that endowment. The state's pension plan over a 30-year period has earned average returns of more than 10 percent. For this, we're basing our projections on 7.5 percent rates of return.
Those historical numbers are impressive, but the market could decline for years after you borrow the money.
There is some risk, right. But understand there is the same risk any time we issue general obligation bonds to invest in a project. There's a state prison facility that we used general obligation bonds to fund that's never been opened. Multnomah County has a jail that we funded using local bonds that was never opened. What I'm asking people to do is to think more broadly about what a long-term economic asset is.
You've characterized your plan as an economic development strategy. What do you think of the state's current economic development strategy?
The governor has said that the Oregon Business Plan is his economic development strategy. That's great, but there are about 10 different goals in the Oregon Business Plan. If I had a strategy, and I wanted to focus on one economic issue that I felt was paramount to this state's future, it would be education. We cannot succeed if we have the second-highest dropout rate in the nation.
How would you assess the urgency of building a skilled workforce?
I don't think we are nearly as aggressive as we need to be on economic development. I don't think we understand how important this issue is, especially in rural Oregon, where since 1980 their economy has been on the skids. We've never adequately addressed replacing a natural-resource economy.
The Columbia River Crossing Project was $200 million spent for nothing. You had a role in assessing it along the way, and your critique of it helped stop it. Do you wish you had moved more aggressively to kill that project?
No, I'm very satisfied with the process we undertook. We were methodical with the investment grade analysis. Our job in the Treasury isn't to issue bumper-sticker proclamations. Our job is to do the work and take a hard look at the financial underpinnings of projects like the CRC, and we did and it came up lacking.
Instead of just standing there and saying, "I don't think it is a good idea," I was able to come forward and explain in very specific detail why I thought it was lacking.
You proposed ambitious legislation in February that would have assigned state employees to do work for the Treasury that's now done by expensive Wall Street firms. It failed to pass. What happened?
Our proposal, over a 20-year period, would have saved between $2.5 billion and $3 billion. We would have derived those savings through bringing people in-house to do basic back-office stuff. This isn't wizards of Wall Street stuff.
Why did it fail?
We spent too much time negotiating with the co-chairs about what would actually be in the bill. By the time it was ready to go to the floor of both chambers, where we had the votes, it got caught up in the debate around the class-action lawsuit bill.
Do you take any ownership of that failure?
Damn right I do, absolutely. I learned some important lessons. First of all, if you have a complex policy bill and you want it to pass, you have to have all of the votes and all of the commitments lined up before the Legislature is even gaveled into order.
And you need to get your bill through in the first week, while people can still stand each other. Because by the end of the legislative session, they are not going to be talking to each other.
Would you like to be governor someday?
Being governor gives you a larger bully pulpit, it allows you to establish the first framework for the budget, it gives you the opportunity to prioritize the things you think need to be prioritized. It is an important opportunity, and one I would certainly consider. Whether or not I am the right guy for it, whether or not the timing is right, that is the future. I don't know.