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Elizabeth Steiner, Democratic treasurer candidate, wants more Oregonians to save


Elizabeth Steiner, Democratic treasurer candidate, wants more Oregonians to save

Apr 23, 2024 | 9:01 am ET
By Alex Baumhardt
Elizabeth Steiner, Democratic treasurer candidate, wants more Oregonians to save
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Steinerof Portland is running for state treasurer. (Campaign photo)

After 12 years in the Oregon Legislature and as a lead budget writer, Portland Sen. Elizabeth Steiner would like to become the state’s chief investment officer. 

She is running for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer in the May 21 primary against investment manager and former Lake Oswego City Councilman Jeff Gudman. The winner of the primary will run in the Nov. 5 general election against the lone Republican candidate, state Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas. Steiner, also a family physician and professor at Oregon Health & Science University, would be the first woman in Oregon history to hold the position. 

Name: Elizabeth Steiner

Party: Democrat

Age: 61

Residence: Portland 

Current occupation: State senator; associate professor of family medicine, Oregon Health & Science University 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in religion and humanities, University of Chicago, 1985; doctor of medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, 1991; medical residency, 1994, and certificates in bioethics, human investigations, Oregon Health & Science University 

Prior elected experience: State senator, District 17 from west Portland to Bethany,

Family status: Three adult children

Fundraising: $356,200 as of April 22, 2024

Cash on hand: $218,594  as of April 22, 2024

The state treasurer sits on a number of state financial boards and the State Land Board, which manages state land trusts for the Common School Fund. The treasurer also serves as the central bank for state agencies and manages more than $100 billion in state investments and programs, including Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS.

Steiner said her experience since 2018 serving as co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful budget writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state’s two-year budget and makes amendments in even years, makes her well-equipped for the job.

“I think that the experience as a budget writer, of having to make difficult choices about what we fund, will really help me prioritize which programs and which projects to take on first,” she said. 

Streamlining the treasury

Among the first projects she’d take on is boosting Oregonians’ financial literacy and creating a single place online where residents could enroll in savings accounts for college, retirement and future care and then monitor their savings. She said she wants to double the number of Oregon kids with a savings plan for post-secondary education and make sure they understand the different types of schools and programs it applies to. Her third priority would be to start a baby bond program for every kid born in Oregon who would get a one time deposit from the state into a savings account that family members could contribute to over time, and that the recipient could access after they turn 18.

“Many Oregonians don’t understand the value of the work that the treasurer does in their children’s lives,” Steiner said. “I really want to educate people across the state, not just about what the treasurer does, but about the ways in which the treasurer can improve their lives and their family’s lives.”

One of the biggest jobs of Oregon’s treasurer is managing the $94 billion PERS fund that’s currently providing benefits for about 140,000 state retirees. The treasurer also manages public banking and savings programs, including the Oregon College Savings Plan and Oregon Saves, a retirement savings program run through the treasury. Steiner helped pass Oregon Saves in the Legislature and has been trying to expand the state’s college savings plan.

State treasurers are elected to a four year term and are limited to two terms during any 12-year period. Whoever wins in the Nov. 5 general election will be the first new state treasurer in Oregon in eight years. The current treasurer, Tobias Read, has served two terms and is running for secretary of state. 

Divesting from fossil fuels

It will be up to the next treasurer to begin moving state investments away from fossil fuel holdings following a plan recently launched by Read to make PERS’ investments carbon neutral by 2050 and a bill just passed by the Legislature that directs the Treasury to unload coal-related holdings.

Steiner, who said she was encouraged by Read to run for the job, has read his Net-Zero Plan. She said she would implement its recommendations and try to ensure investments aren’t propping up the fossil-fuels industry, but that there were nuances to such divestment decisions that she would need to study before making decisions.

“We’re also going to have to be thoughtful about balancing a lot of different things,” she said. 

She cited the airline Delta as an example of a heavy greenhouse gas emitter but a company with good labor relations and governance.

“How do you balance a company that may, for example, have really high Scope 3 (downstream) greenhouse gas emissions and also treats its employees really well and has great corporate governance?” she said. 

The main goal behind everything she would do, she said, would be to grow the PERS fund.

“That’s the fundamental thing that every treasurer has to do,” she said.