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Kotek, Johnson agree on much at governor online forum

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson, perhaps surprisingly, agreed during an online forum about much of what Oregon’s next governor should do to help business, housing, transportation and the image of its largest city.

But Democrat Kotek and nonaffiliated candidate Johnson predictably disagreed on how state government should deal with them.

Republican Christine Drazan was absent from the forum sponsored Monday by the Westside Economic Alliance — a coalition of business and community leaders and government officials, primarily in Washington County — and five partners. They were Clackamas County Business Alliance, Columbia Corridor Association, Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, Oregon Smart Growth and Working Waterfront Coalition of Portland.

WEA executive director Elizabeth Mazzara Myers said Drazan, a former House Republican leader from Canby, had confirmed she would take part. But then Drazan’s campaign told WEA on Sunday she was bowing out because of a “scheduling conflict.”

Drazan bowed out of a May 3 debate at the City Club of Portland with four other Republican candidates for governor, giving a two-hour notice but no reason.

Drazan and Kotek have run close in several recent public opinion surveys. Johnson, who seeks to be only the second Oregon governor not affiliated with either major party, trails them but still has a greater share of support than any similarly situated candidate since 1990.

Each candidate had two minutes to respond to questions submitted by the groups about business, workforce, housing and transportation. There were two rounds of questions; others not asked during the hourlong forum were submitted to the campaigns.

The exchanges between Kotek, a former Oregon House speaker from Portland, and Johnson, a former Democratic lawmaker from Scappoose, carried echoes of the four-decade-old re-election campaign waged by Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh, who proclaimed Oregon as “open for business,” in contrast to two-term Republican predecessor Tom McCall, who sought to protect Oregon’s environment.

Their agreements — and disagreements — were evident in their responses to how the state should promote more housing construction and industrial land.

They agreed that Portland’s image needs rehabilitation — though Kotek took a swing at Johnson’s prior description of it as the “city of roaches” — and also agreed that a new bridge across the Columbia River and the widening of Interstate 5 at Portland’s Rose Quarter should be priority transportation projects.

Housing a priority

A study by the Portland firm ECONorthwest, and frequently mentioned by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, estimates that Oregon came up 111,000 housing units short of what was needed to accommodate population growth during the past decade. The study says about half are needed for families who earn less than $73,000, the area’s median income — half above and half below that figure.

The office, which is part of state government, estimated that Oregon would have to build about 36,000 units annually over the next decade to close the gap, far short of the current rate of 20,000 to 25,000.

Johnson said 580,000 units are needed by 2040.

Johnson said one cause of the shortage is the “straitjacket” of Oregon’s land use laws, which protect farm and forest land and confine most development within urban growth boundaries.

“I want to get the politicians and the outdated rules and regulations out of the way, so that we can increase the supply of housing,” Johnson said. The restriction of urban growth boundaries “is cheating us of the opportunity to build more affordable housing, as well as expand our businesses.”

She also said local governments have to act faster on permits.

Kotek agreed that housing must be a priority: “It is the No. 1 barrier to economic growth in our state.”

She advanced legislation in 2019 to allow more housing within cities, although some cities have resisted rezoning single-family lots for duplexes, triplexes or four-plexes. A 2021 law followed up on that requirement.

Kotek focused on what the state can do to prod cities and other local governments, which issue the permits, provide services and charge systems development fees to help pay for them. “In Portland, you need six agencies to get the permits you need to build. It’s far too long. Time is money. You’ve got to bring down the barriers that are keeping things from being built in the metro area,” she said.

“We need more housing within our existing land use system.”

Industrial land dispute

The same agreements and disagreements cropped up when they were asked about the recent report of a state semiconductor task force, which recommended that Oregon should have more large industrial sites. Intel, Oregon’s largest private employer at 22,000 workers, announced plans for chip-making in Ohio — closer to the nation’s automakers — and Micron says it will invest up to $100 billion in manufacturing in upstate New York. Intel’s Oregon plants are in Hillsboro and Aloha.

The Metro Council chose not to expand Portland’s urban growth boundary in 2018 to add to a 20-year supply of industrial land, although four westside cities — Beaverton, Hillsboro, King City and Wilsonville — were allowed to add land for about 9,000 single-family homes.

During 15 years in the Oregon House, Kotek represented North and Northeast Portland, where much of the metro region’s industrial land is.

“I have been always clear that our land use system must work as intended,” she said. “I have fought to maintain our supply of industrial land. Manufacturing should be prioritized at these (industrial) sites,” and uses such as warehousing should have lesser priority.

She also said that state agencies, specifically the Department of Environmental Quality, should provide “clarity, stability and certainty.”

“Metro was just flat wrong,” Johnson said. She said the announcements by Intel and Micron were “an embarrassment” to Oregon, although Intel’s most advanced development facility is in Hillsboro.

She described her role as “a cheerleader for economic development,” and if she were governor, state agencies would follow her lead.

“We need agencies that are nimble and responsive,” she said. “Permitting needs to happen expeditiously. We should have agencies that are referees, not participants, in deciding whether a particularly company is allowed to site.”

Portland’s image

Johnson said her business has played host to visitors from Asia and Europe who were impressed by Portland International Airport. But she said they also told her: “Too bad you don’t have a world-class city to go with it.”

“We have got to rehabilitate Portland by getting it safer and cleaner and get people off the streets, hopefully into recovery and stable housing,” she said.

Kotek threw back Johnson’s description of Portland as a “city of roaches” in a story published June 28 by The New York Times. Johnson has since said she regrets making the comment. (According to one national listing, Portland isn’t in the top 20 with that problem.)

“You are never going to hear me call Portland the ‘city of roaches.’ You are never going to hear me chastise our state or our city to a national publication,” Kotek said.

She did agree with Johnson about what needs to be done in Portland.

“We have to clean up Portland,” she said. “It is incredibly important for the entire state for Portland to be looking better, functioning better and feeling safer. If our major city does not feel like a place people want to be, no one is going to come here and visit or do business here.”

Agreement on big projects

Both agreed with the construction of a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River — the current Interstate Bridge spans connecting Portland and Vancouver, Washington, date to 1917 and 1958 — and the widening of I-5 at the Rose Quarter interchange with I-84.

“The I-5 corridor is part of a national transportation system,” Johnson said. “Those two big projects need attention, and need it now.”

Oregon seeks initial federal grants of $750 million for the bridge, which awaits a supplemental environmental impact statement required for major projects, and $100 million for the Rose Quarter reconnection with streets in the Albina neighborhood that was divided by I-5 in the 1960s. The estimated price tags are up to $5 billion for the bridge and more than $1 billion for the Rose Quarter project — and it’s unclear where the money will come from.

“We’ve had a decade of dithering worrying about that bridge,” Johnson said. “I would insist that the bridge get built. I don’t think tolling is an option for a national piece of our transportation infrastructure.”

In 2013, Johnson and Kotek voted for Oregon’s proposed state share of the bridge, but the Republican-controlled Washington Senate balked, and Oregon shelved the project. It was revived in 2017 after Democrats gained control in Washington.

“If Washington hadn’t screwed up, we’d have a new bridge by now,” Kotek said.

Kotek said a bridge is going to have to accommodate cars and other forms of transportation — and that federal participation is essential.

“As a project of national significance, we cannot pay for the whole thing ourselves,” she said.

As for tolls or other financing, she added: “We have to be honest with people. If we are going to maintain the infrastructure we need — and we’re not even talking about new capacity, just infrastructure that needs to be modernized and improved — we’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it from a statewide perspective. I do not feel we are on the path to do that right now.”

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