New Governor Prioritizes Housing, State Agency Customer Service
Tina Kotek was sworn in Monday as Oregon’s 39th governor and, as expected, announced she will declare a housing emergency on her first full day in office and sign an executive order calling for creation of 36,000 new housing units per year. Kotek said her goal is “to be a force for positive change” and “to act with urgency”.
State officials estimate Oregon lacks 110,000 housing units to meet current demand and will need 550,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. Kotek’s proposed 36,000 annual housing unit target would represent an 80 percent increase over current housing production rates. The new governor will ask state lawmakers for $130 million to assist Oregonians who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes.
In her inaugural speech, Kotek called on state agency leaders to prioritize customer service and promised to make state agencies “more efficient and more effective in creating systems that will empower the state’s 42,000 public servants to deliver for Oregonians”. “So many state employees are working incredibly hard to do their jobs but struggle because of unnecessary bureaucratic barriers or outdated systems that do not meet the challenge of the day,” she said.
Kotek said a priority for her would be strengthening connections between Oregonians statewide, and she cited former Governor Vic Atiyeh as a role model she will follow. “He too was a former legislator with deep knowledge of our state budget,” she said. “I will endeavor to listen and lead with the same authenticity, compassion and skill that Governor Atiyeh brought to the job.” Atiyeh was the last Republican to serve as Oregon’s governor. Before resigning to run for governor, Kotek was Oregon’s longest serving House Speaker.
The Capitol was open to spectators for the first time since the end of the COVID pandemic to witness Kotek’s swearing-in and the election of presiding officers in the House and Senate. Construction is underway, which limited access and produced noises in the background of Kotek’s and other speeches.
“We can’t fix polarization in the country, but we can make Oregon an example of how things can be done.”
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, was re-elected as House Speaker and Senator Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, was elected as Senate President, succeeding Peter Courtney, who retired as the longest serving Senate President in Oregon history. In his remarks, Rayfield made a plea for bipartisan cooperation on major issues such as housing, gun safety and behavioral health.
“We alone can’t fix the polarization and trust issues in our country,” Rayfield said. “But we can accept responsibility for our actions within these walls and make Oregon an example of how things can be done.”
While Oregon’s tax and lottery system has generated windfall revenues during the pandemic, state economists warn a potential recession this year caused by rising interest rates could crimp state budgets. Following the 2020 election, Democrats now lack supermajorities in the House and Senate to pass tax hikes without Republican votes.
End of Kate Brown Tenure
Monday’s swearing-in ceremony marked the end of Governor Kate Brown’s seven-year tenure after she succeeded former Governor John Kitzhaber when he resigned in early 2015. Media retrospectives have highlighted criticism of Brown for her COVID response, plummeting student test scores, faulty state agency performance and a lackluster response to recruiting new industry and jobs to Oregon. She has earned praise for remaking and diversifying Oregon’s judiciary by appointing 112 judges, half of whom were women and one quarter people of color.
During her tenure, Brown faced more than her fair share of challenges. There were wildfires, draughts, riots and agency computer failures, not to mention a wildlife refuge takeover, mass shooting, homelessness crisis and coronavirus pandemic. Legislative Republicans walked out three times over a span of two sessions to block Brown’s centerpiece climate change legislation. In reflecting on her tenure, Brown told columnist Dick Hughes that she grew tense every time the phone rang at Mahonia Hall.