State Treasurer Ted Wheeler's tenure will end in 2016, two years short of the eight years the Oregon constitution allows, according to an opinion issued today by the Oregon Department of Justice.
That opinion is a surprise—the Oregon constitution permits state wide elected officials such as the governor, secretary of state and treasurer to serve eight consecutive years. But it now appears Wheeler, 51, will be finished after six years.
“I respect the Attorney General’s opinion," Wheeler said in a prepared statement, "and it in no way impacts my focus on jobs, education, workforce development and retirement security.”
The news also comes at a time when Wheeler is pushing the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, a proposal to fund college scholarships using borrowed money that will appear on the November ballot. He's also in the midst of an effort to bring some of the state's investment management functions in-house, a change legislators declined to act on earlier this year.
The AG's opinion comes after a convoluted series of events triggered by the death of then-State Treasurer Ben Westlund in early 2010. Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski named Wheeler, then serving as Multnomah County chairman to replace Westlund. In November 2010, Wheeler ran for election to serve out the remaining two years of Westlund's term. He then ran for a full four-year term in 2012, winning again.
Last month, Salem Statesman Journal reporter Hannah Hoffman posed an intriguing question: what would happen when Wheeler's current term ends in 2016? The Oregon constitution says the treasurer serves terms of four years and cannot serve for more than eight of any 12 years. The constitution is silent, however, as to what happens when a treasurer starts mid-term, as Wheeler did.
If he were to run for re-election in 2016, he'd only be able to serve for two years according to the eight-in-12 rule. But if he were not allowed to run, Wheeler would be deprived of the final two years of his maximum allowed tenure.
After Hoffman raised the question, Secretary of State Kate Brown, who oversees elections, asked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum for a legal opinion—could Wheeler run again in 2016, or not?
Not, Roseblum decided.
"We conclude that the the years Treasurer Wheeler served after his election in November 2010 must be included when applying the eight-year limit," Rosenblum wrote in the opinion released late Monday afternoon. "Assuming that Treasurer Wheeler completes his present four-year term of office, we further conclude that he would not qualify to run for State Treasurer in the 2016 election because he would be incapable of fulfilling the full term of office without violating the eight year limitation of Article VI, section 1 of the Oregon Constitution."
There is subtext to that question: the 2018 governor's race, in which Wheeler, Brown and Rosenblum have all been mentioned as potential candidates. (Full disclosure: Rosenblum is married to WW publisher Richard Meeker.)
It's unclear what today's ruling means for Wheeler's political future.
Although the treasury acts as the state's bank and also helps oversee nearly $90 billion in pension funds, the agency generally keeps a low profile. Being out of office could actually allow Wheeler greater freedom to express opinions and mount a campaign for 2018, or it could leave him as a candidate without a platform.