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One year in, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek faces same challenges

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Gov. Kotek speaks at the Oregon Business Plan 2023 Leadership Summit Michael Romanos www.michaelroman

Kotek replaced agency directors and scored billions for housing and education, but Oregon’s biggest problems remain

BY:  – JANUARY 9, 2024 6:00 AM || OREGON CAPITOL CHRONICLE

Gov. Tina Kotek took office a year ago with a promise to wake up every day with a mission to take on Oregon’s challenges and make things better.

And the state faced many challenges. While state coffers were overflowing – Oregon will send taxpayers the largest “kicker” rebate in state history this spring – Oregonians were bruised and pessimistic after years of a pandemic, civic unrest that included months of protests in Portland and an incursion into the state Capitol and rising homelessness and public drug use.

Kotek faced other, unexpected obstacles in her first year: a scandal that cost the state’s secretary of state, the de facto lieutenant governor, her job, a historic six-week walkout that ground the Legislature to a halt and the longest teachers’ strike in Oregon history.

A year later, many of those same challenges remain. Homelessness in Oregon hit record highs in 2023, with more than 20,000 Oregonians documented as lacking housing on a single night in January. At Kotek’s urging, lawmakers pledged $1.2 billion in new funding for housing and homelessness. Hundreds more beds are available in shelters throughout the state, though thousands of Oregonians are still sleeping outside.

Kotek and Portland-area leaders produced a plan in December to revitalize the state’s struggling largest city, but it’s too early to determine whether it will bear results. The same is true of the advisory council she tasked with coming up with a plan to nearly double the number of homes built in the state each year.

During an interview with the Capital Chronicle in December, Kotek pointed to increased shelter capacity as an example of something that’s materially better since she took office. Another example, one harder for the average Oregonian to see, was in her quiet reshaping of state government.

“We’ve set new standards within state agencies around customer service,” she said. “We’ve hired new agency directors, we’ve been trying to make sure that internally state government is meeting some different goals, and we’ll have reports out on that early next month. So I think the enterprise of state government has gotten stronger over the course of this year which benefits Oregonians around the state.”

New leaders

A few months into her term, Kotek faced one of her most consequential decisions: choosing a new secretary of state. Shemia Fagan, the elected head of Oregon’s elections and audits, resigned in May in disgrace after Willamette Week revealed that she moonlighted for a marijuana business involved in an audit conducted by her office, and it was Kotek’s job to find an appointment who could restore trust in a division of state government that was already damaged by years of attacks on election officials.

After weeks of hushed deliberations, she chose retired Portland auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, a soft-spoken mystery novelist who has kept a low personal profile during her six months in office. While Fagan regularly played a public role at press conferences announcing audits and elections decisions, Griffin-Valade has stayed in the background as her office handles high-profile incidents, including ongoing lawsuits over whether former President Donald Trump and a handful of Republican state senators can appear on ballots.

Kotek also handled an earlier scandal surrounding the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. After facing pressure from recovery advocates during her campaign, she called for former commission director Steve Marks to resign. Marks and three other top employees were then implicated in using their positions to hoard rare bottles of expensive bourbon, prompting Kotek to appoint Craig Prins, the former inspector general of the state corrections department, to lead the commission.

And she replaced several other department heads, including ones who were lightning rods in the COVID pandemic. As a candidate, Kotek promised that she would bring new leadership to the Oregon Health Authority, telling the Willamette Week she would fire both director Patrick Allen and Steve Allen, the agency’s behavioral health director. Both Allens, who aren’t related, resigned after her election.

Her initial pick to lead the agency, James Schroeder, started as the interim director and then left after less than two months. Dr. Sejal Hathi, a New Jersey public health deputy commissioner, starts later this month.

Ebony Clarke became the state’s new behavioral health director in February, leaving her job as the director of the Multnomah County Health Department. She remains on the job after nearly a year.

Kotek tapped Charlene Williams, a former Portland Public Schools leader, to head the Department of Education as Oregon students continue struggling to recover from the pandemic and remote schooling.

And she named new directors of the Oregon State Police, Department of Corrections, Department of Agriculture, Oregon Lottery, as well as appointing Aruna Masih to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Mixed progress on goals

Kotek described her first few months as laser-focused on housing and homelessness, which had been priorities since her time as speaker of the Oregon House. She issued executive orders within 24 hours of taking office to declare a state of emergency around homelessness and set an ambitious goal of building 36,000 homes annually – nearly double the current rate.

Lawmakers stepped up, providing $200 million in March for emergency homelessness relief. Data provided by Oregon Housing and Community Services lags, but as of Oct. 31 the money had resulted in building about 80% of 600 new planned shelter beds, rehousing about 50% of the planned 1,200 homeless households and providing rent assistance to keep about 5,900 families in their homes.

“Around the housing and homelessness and emergency orders, I think we’re very much on track,” Kotek said  “We’re certainly focusing on the next session around housing production.”

After housing, improving early childhood education and literacy were cornerstones of Kotek’s campaign for governor. She also promised increased school funding, especially for summer programs to help students recover from learning interrupted by COVID-19 school closures. For teachers and school staff, she promised better working conditions and said she’d harness state resources to address workforce shortages.

She championed the Early Literacy Success Initiative, investing nearly $145 million in grant programs to help schools and nonprofits pay for new reading curriculum, tutoring and teacher training in reading methods proven to boost literacy for all kids.

It was part of a record $10.2 billion in funding for schools passed during the session, but none of the extra money was directed to summer school. Community groups and schools told the Capital Chronicle without additional money during the summer, they had to cut field trips, the number of hours of classes offered each day or had to cut programs entirely. The record funding was also not enough to stave off a three-week teacher strike in November in the state’s largest school district –  Portland Public Schools – as well as staff and salary cuts in the state’s second-largest district, Salem-Keizer. Leaders in both districts said a lack of state funding contributed to difficult choices regarding teacher pay and looming layoffs.

A third focus of her campaign was behavioral health and addiction. In her inaugural speech, Kotek pledged to strengthen connections across the state and deliver results on behavioral health and addiction care, among other things.

After the first legislative session, Kotek signed bills to make opioid overdose reversal medication more available, expand fentanyl drug education in public schools and start a 40-cent phone line tax for the 988 state hotline and mobile crisis response teams that help people in crises. More recently, Kotek prodded Oregon’s Medicaid insurers to put $25 million of their profits toward four youth addiction residential projects across the state that will add another 100 beds to the system.

Kotek told the Capital Chronicle she didn’t previously understand the depth of the challenges facing the mental health and addiction treatment system.

“I see in 2024 the type of focus we had on housing and homelessness for behavioral health,” she said. “Now that we’ve gotten our feet under us, now that we understand what’s going on with the Oregon Health Authority, we have more work to do there and I think that will be the primary focus for next year.”

Former Gov. Brown focused on the environment and criminal justice, both of which have taken a lower priority under Kotek. She promised that once in office she’d protect existing state laws meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the threat of climate change and would ensure the continued future of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Fuels Program and the Climate Protection Plan. Oregon’s second highest court recently ruled in favor of natural gas utilities seeking to invalidate the state’s landmark climate program. The environmental quality department is working with the Oregon Department of Justice on making changes or appealing the ruling.

During the legislative session, Kotek championed the $90 million Climate Resilience Package including more than a dozen measures aimed at boosting carbon sequestration in forests and farmlands and leveraging federal funding to make clean energy more affordable for homes and businesses.

Kotek also vowed to direct more state money to people in northeast Oregon who are facing well water contamination from farm fertilizers, food processors and animal manure. She visited residents in Morrow County on her One Oregon Tour in May and discussed directing more than $6 million to the Oregon Health Authority and Morrow and Umatilla counties for public health staff, water testing, water delivery and special water filters. Kotek set the expectation that all well users would have their water tested by September, but by early October the Oregon Health Authority had tested about one-third of wells used by households in the counties.

As a candidate for governor, Kotek advocated stronger gun control laws after a shooting at a Bend grocery store during the 2022 campaign.

She signed House Bill 2005 to ban ghost guns, which are untrackable, favored by criminals and easier to sell and buy illegally. But that bill was watered down amid the GOP-led Senate walkout, and Democratic lawmakers killed language that would have raised the minimum age to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21 years and allowed local agencies to ban firearms on government-owned property.

Poor polling

Kotek narrowly won her election in 2022, capturing 47% of the vote in a three-way race with former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan and former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who ran as a nonaffiliated candidate. She won a majority of the vote in just seven counties, propelled to victory by deep-blue Multnomah County.

Those narrow margins meant that from the start she had a lot of work to do to convince Oregonians, especially those in rural conservative areas, that she would be a governor for the whole state. Kotek spent much of the year on the road, meeting local leaders in visits to every county.

It’s been an uphill battle. The national polling firm Morning Consult rated her as the nation’s least popular governor in April and July, though she surpassed Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and climbed to 49th in popularity in the most recent poll released in October.

She remains unfazed about her poor polling, saying Oregonians will understand what she’s doing as she continues to work hard.

“I believe in our state,” Kotek said. “I don’t believe we’re a divided state as much as people think we are. We have very different opinions on how to solve problems sometimes, but people are just like, ‘Yeah, we got to fix things. Post-pandemic, people are in a different mindset of ‘let’s just let’s just figure things out. Let’s stop fighting about stuff.’”

Oregon Capital Chronicle reporters Alex Baumhardt and Ben Botkin contributed reporting to this story.

Julia ShumwayJulia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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