Editorial: Game of pretend on Kitzhaber speaking fees

To justify allowing Gov. John Kitzhaber to accept speaking fees, the state’s ethics commission is playing a game of pretend.

Let’s pretend the fact that he’s governor has nothing to do with why groups want him to speak.

Let’s pretend the governorship isn’t a 24/7 job. Let’s pretend it’s possible to determine that a group wanting him to speak has no interest in state policy.

And let’s pretend speaking arrangements can be made without any involvement of the governor’s staff.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a legal opinion that says the governor can accept speaker fees under certain conditions, including those listed above.

The commissioners’ own questions reflected doubts, despite their yes votes. Commissioner Larry Campbell, for example, asked, “Is the governor going to be going back to New Jersey and North Carolina talking on Wednesday and Thursday when he ought to be in this state being the governor?” And Commission Chairman Ian Whitlock commented that it’s impossible to know whether Kitzhaber’s governorship is the reason a group asks him to speak.

Our governor, a physician, has developed an expertise in health policy. That can’t be separated from his experience leading the state through reforms to its Medicaid program in the 1980s or his more recent work devising a better system to deliver health care through coordinated-care organizations. According to a report in Salem’s Statesman Journal, Modern Healthcare.com ranks Kitzhaber No. 3 among the top 100 influential people in health care, ahead of President Obama.

That expertise should be shared through speeches across the country, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s not part of his governorship.

Oregon pays Kitzhaber $93,600 annually to be its top executive. That’s well below Washington’s $167,000 or California’s $174,000 or even Idaho’s $115,000, according to statistics from the Council of State Governments. In fact, only three states pay their governor less than Oregon. If we want a full-time governor, perhaps we should pay him like one, instead of sending him out on the speakers circuit.