By ANDREW SELSKY
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon residents are increasingly pushing for the state to divest from fossil fuel companies and other controversial investments, but the state treasury is resisting and putting the onus on the Legislature.
In addition to fossil fuel companies whose products are a main driver of global warming, the state employee retirement fund is also invested in a company whose spyware was used against human rights workers, journalists and other targets, and in companies that operate private prisons where detained immigrants were mistreated and some died.
Even as some cities and other states such as New York have begun divesting, Oregon, a predominantly liberal state, clings to the status quo. The disparate approaches underscore that managers of public funds are often torn between ethical considerations, legal imperatives and obligations to beneficiaries.
The Oregon State Treasury oversees some $118 billion in investments, including an undisclosed amount in fossil fuel companies and other controversial sectors. Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read wouldn’t be pinned down on the amount, despite repeated direct questions by Oregon Public Radio.
“It’s not just public equities, it’s also private equity, it’s also bonds,” said Read, a Democrat who’s running for governor in the 2022 election. “So we’re selling and buying bonds literally every day. So it changes.”
In a letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, Read and fellow members of the Oregon Investment Council said they can’t pursue divestment because state law specifies investments must “make the moneys as productive as possible.”
They said it’s up to the Legislature to change the laws and warned that lawmakers might need to dig into the state’s general funds to cover any losses from divesting.
“When we exit investments, we do so for performance reasons, not political or personal ones,” Read and four other members of the OIC wrote in their Oct. 25 letter.
Kotek, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor, was not impressed.
“Speaker Kotek … supports pursuing strategies to divest Oregon’s public funds from fossil fuels,” her spokesman Danny Moran said in an email Friday. ”She finds it disappointing that Treasurer Read’s letter seems to affirm his support for the status quo.”
Much of the divestment focus in Oregon is on fossil fuels, with groups such as Divest Oregon and 350PDX pushing for it to combat climate change. Divestment advocates say there’s also a financial incentive, with the value of share offerings in fossil fuel companies dropping.