Kotek announces 36-county listening tour, framework for first year as governor

PORTLAND— Gov.-elect Tina Kotek plans to visit all 36 Oregon counties over the next year in an effort to build trust in the state government, she announced during an annual business gathering Monday. 

Kotek was the keynote speaker at the Oregon Business Plan’s Leadership Summit, which has drawn hundreds of business leaders, elected officials and lobbyists to Portland for the past 20 years. She laid out her plans for her first year in office, which she said will encompass three overarching goals. 

First, she aims to build trust across Oregon. That includes meeting with Oregonians in their communities, with a statewide tour she’ll start with trips to Yamhill and Douglas counties before her Jan. 9 inauguration, as well as her pledge to meet every two weeks with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler as the state’s largest city addresses homelessness.

That goal also includes fulfilling campaign promises to address Oregon’s twin housing and homelessness crises, lack of mental health and addiction providers and flailing schools, as standardized tests show Oregon students falling far below their national average in math and reading. 

“Despite challenges, Oregonians don’t back down when things get hard,” Kotek said. “We dig in, we think outside the box when times get hard.”

Second, Kotek said she’ll focus on increasing accountability and oversight in state government, taking a customer service approach to public service. She said she’ll deliver a list of expectations to each state agency when she takes office in January. 

New agency heads

After her speech, Kotek told reporters she’s “possibly” considering replacing the heads of two troubled Oregon agencies: Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Education Department, and David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department.

Gill has been blamed for long school closures that contributed to learning loss. Gerstenfeld, who was elevated in 2020 after outgoing Gov. Kate Brown fired the previous employment director over the state’s botched pandemic unemployment response, has presided over an agency that is still struggling to make pandemic-related payments and has been slow to organize a paid-leave program that’s supposed to start next year. 

The head of the Oregon Health Authority, Patrick Allen, will step down as Kotek takes office, as will Steve Allen, the agency’s behavioral health director. Kotek pledged during her campaign to replace both Allens, who are not related. 

She said her focus on accountability will include changing how her team thinks of success. In the state Capitol, where Kotek served as a representative since 2006 and as speaker of the House for nearly a decade, she said it was too easy to declare victory once a vote was over or a bill signed into law without keeping sight on the end goal. 

“The real victory doesn’t come until that working mom enrolls her kid in an affordable child care program,” she said. “Success doesn’t come until that veteran who’s been living on the street moves into permanent housing. And we certainly won’t claim success until that student who’s been struggling to read knows the satisfaction of reading her first book.”

Focus on tech

Finally, Kotek said she’ll encourage new and more robust partnerships between state and local governments and between the public and private sector. That includes continued work on housing and homelessness, child care and infrastructure, she said. 

And it includes making sure Oregon receives a substantial chunk of the $280 billion in available federal funding from the CHIPS and Science Act for semiconductor manufacturing and technological research passed in July. Brown and a task force that includes business leaders and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, are working on a plan for the Legislature including a new tax credit and other business incentives.

Kotek said she supports the broad strokes of that plan, which she has heard could cost between $200 million and $300 million. She’s waiting to see specific dollar amounts, she said. 

“We have to be aggressive if we’re going to get part of what’s coming from the federal government,” Kotek said. 

Wyden told attendees the Legislature needed to work quickly to make sure Oregon receives its share of  the semiconductor funding. Oregon has long been a leader in the semiconductor industry, with 15% of the nation’s semiconductor workforce here. But other states, including New York and Texas, are trying to take the lead, Wyden warned. 

“The days are over where we take a back seat to any of them,” he said. “We’re going to out-compete all of them in the days ahead.” 

The U.S. Department of Commerce will release criteria for receiving semiconductor funding in February, said Sue Richards, the global head of print microfluidics, technology and operations for HP, which is considering bringing manufacturing jobs back to Corvallis, where the company invented its inkjet printer. Richards said Oregon needs to have its state incentives decided in the same timespan. 

“We have to be able to quickly move to talk about what those state incentives are and how we’re going to compete,” Richards said.  “We as Oregon have the right to win just based on our history and based on the talent here in the state.” 

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, will lead the Legislature’s work on economic development. Bynum has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s in business administration, and she said she expected to work in the semiconductor industry when she moved to Oregon in 2002 because of her experience in engineering and Oregon’s reputation as the “Silicon Forest.”  

That job search didn’t pan out, and Bynum and her husband now own four McDonald’s franchises. She said Oregon failed her as a young person looking to work in the high-tech industry, and she won’t let that happen again. 

“I am determined not to drop that ball again on Oregon’s youth,” she said. 

A top priority

Housing, one of Kotek’s top priorities, will also be a top focus for the Legislature, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Rep. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, said. 

“We’re 110,000 houses short,” Rayfield said. “That’s unacceptable. We need to make stuff work.”

He promised legislation and funding to help build more houses. Anderson, the former mayor of Lincoln City, said the focus will be on so-called workforce housing, for people who earn between 80% and 120% of the median income in an area. That cohort typically includes police officers, hospital employees, city workers and other professionals who are typically considered to be part of the middle class.

Those workers often make too much to qualify for subsidized housing but not enough to spend 30% of their income or less on market-rate rent or mortgage payments. Employers in the public and private sectors have anecdotally reported struggling to recruit and retain employees because of housing costs. 

“We for decades have talked about the housing crisis in Oregon,” Anderson said. “We’ve done things about it, but we’ve not treated it as a real crisis, a real emergency.”

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and 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.