News, OREGON, Politics

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek takes office with a promise to ‘make things better’

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

As she took office as governor Monday, Tina Kotek promised to wake up every day with a mission: to take on Oregon’s biggest challenges and make things better. 

“It’s a simple idea – making things better – but as we all know, a difficult thing to achieve,” she told members of the Oregon House and Senate and other state officials in a joint legislative session on Monday afternoon. 

That starts with a recognition that the status quo isn’t working, Kotek said. And it requires working together toward a vision of an Oregon where no one lives in a tent on a sidewalk, where every child has access to a high-quality public education and where everyone feels safe in their homes and communities, she said. 

“That’s an Oregon worth fighting for – and today is a new beginning,” Kotek said. “I’m eager to get to work. And I hope you will join me.”

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Monday marked the beginning of a new era in state government, with Kotek, new Senate President Rob Wagner and nearly one-third of the 90-member Legislature beginning new jobs. Her address to a joint legislative session was the first time since before the pandemic began in 2020 that legislators gathered en masses and largely unmasked.

But because of an ongoing construction project that has closed much of the Capitol, Kotek addressed a relatively small group of government officials and reporters instead of the hundreds of people who normally would pack galleries ringing the House chamber. Construction workers agreed to pause their jackhammering during the inauguration itself, but the clang of tools punctuated earlier meetings of the House and Senate. 

Kotek, a Democrat like her predecessor, Kate Brown, faces immense challenges as she takes office as Oregon’s 39th governor. Thousands of Oregonians are living on the streets or sleeping in shelters or on other people’s couches, and many more struggle to afford their rent or mortgage payments. Oregon’s addiction rate is among the highest in the nation. 

And more Oregonians voted for a candidate other than Kotek than voted for her in the November election. Kotek succeeds a historically unpopular governor, and she said connecting with Oregonians with shared concerns and different opinions is a top priority. 

Kotek said she has drawn inspiration from a surprising place: Vic Atiyeh, the last Republican governor of Oregon who left office in the 1980s. The two may come from different parties, she said, but they were both former legislators with budget experience and both made history as “firsts” – Atiyeh as the nation’s first elected governor of Arab descent and Kotek as the nation’s first openly lesbian governor, a distinction she shares with new Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey. Kotek’s wife, social worker Aimee Kotek Wilson, stood by her side as she took her oath.

Kotek quoted Atiyeh’s inaugural address, in which he promised to continue listening to all Oregonians, not just those with the means to press their cases in Salem. And she repeated an Atiyeh pledge to visit every county, an initiative Kotek began with a trip to Yamhill County just before Christmas.

One of her first actions on Tuesday, her first full day in office, will be to sign an executive order establishing a statewide goal of building 36,000 new homes per year. Oregon needs to add roughly 550,000 homes over the next 20 years to meet current and expected housing needs, according to the state Department of Land Conservation and Development. The state has averaged only about 20,000 homes per year in recent years. 

“Building more housing is key to creating healthier and safer communities and supporting economic growth,” Kotek said. “I look forward to bringing comprehensive recommendations to this body as soon as possible.”

She’ll also declare a state of emergency for homelessness, an action that would give Kotek greater authority to address the state’s ongoing homelessness crisis. A citywide homelessness state of emergency declared in Portland  several years ago reduced bureaucratic barriers around zoning and building shelters. 

And Kotek said she will ask the Legislature to quickly approve a $130 million spending package aimed at expanding shelter space and helping at least 1,200 homeless Oregonians move off the streets in the next year.

“I am urging you, as leaders, to start the legislative session by taking up this investment package as quickly as possible,” she said. “And believe me, this is only the first step. I look forward to building on this emergency investment with a comprehensive housing and homelessness package by the end of this session.” 

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who was elected to his first full term earlier Monday, said in his own speech to lawmakers that he expects to pass a housing funding package within the first 60 days of the session, which begins Jan. 17. He didn’t provide details. 

Another big goal is accountability, Kotek said. She has already made changes at several troubled state agencies, including replacing the director of the Oregon Health Authority and appointing a new state behavioral health director.

Last week, Kotek also announced that the director of the Oregon Department of Education will leave at the end of June. Director Colt Gill has come under fire as Oregon students lag their peers in other states in core areas including reading. 

Kotek said she will deliver a new set of expectations to the leaders of every state agency by the end of the week. And she said she will direct agency leaders to modernize systems to make the government work better for Oregonians. Outdated computer systems and bureaucratic barriers make it difficult for Oregonians to accomplish simple tasks like apply for building permits, receive employment assistance or use other government services.

“When your community or your family is facing a crisis, our job is to provide the tools that you need — not barriers that make things harder,” she said. “As we address the very large, complex challenges our state faces — whether it’s housing, behavioral health, or education — we have to put our own house in order too.”

Kotek said she and her team will spend Saturday participating in a community cleanup to mark the service of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life is celebrated Monday. She urged other Oregonians to do volunteer work of their own. 

“It will take all of us, doing what we can, to build the Oregon we want to live in,” she said. 

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The Miller Team John L Scott Market Center