Since our last conversation with Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, Republican lawmakers staged a historically long walkout, a state task force convened to address serious problems in Portland’s central city, and a coalition of prominent leaders have begun calling for an overhaul of Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization law. We spent an hour in Salem with the governor to talk about all those things and more.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We last talked with Oregon Governor Tina Kotek in March. That was before Republicans nearly derailed the legislative session with a historically long walkout, before the governor convened a task force to address serious problems in Portland’s central city, and before a coalition of prominent leaders in the state started calling to recriminalize drugs–fentanyl and meth. We are back in a rainy Salem today. We have an hour with Tina Kotek to talk about all this and a lot more. Governor Kotek, thanks very much for making time with us.
Tina Kotek: You’re welcome, Dave. Nice to be back.
Miller: I want to start with drug decriminalization. It’s been more than two years now since Measure 110 went into effect in Oregon, after a large majority of Oregonians supported it. What impact do you think this first-in-the-nation legal change has had?
Kotek: It has gotten Oregonians talking about a very serious issue, which is the prevalence of drug addiction in our state and what it means for everyday Oregonians. I hear from a lot of people. As you know, we’ve been visiting with a lot of Oregonians across the state. The hurt, the anguish, what it’s doing to families. The fact that drugs like fentanyl, meth, and alcohol are doing to Oregonians, it’s hurting a lot of folks. What Measure 110 has done has really raised the awareness, I think. People are talking about it all the time. Did we get it right? Was it the right thing to do? What are we doing? Can we make it work better? And from my standpoint, anytime you have people talking about an important issue, it’s a positive thing.
Miller: Okay, but can you answer those questions you just asked? Did we get it right?
Kotek: No, I don’t think the measure got it right. Oregonians voted for it, but you know what, we have to figure out how to help people. So Measure 110 does need some fixes, and I’ve been really upfront about that. [I’ve] been talking with legislators about the unintended consequence of Measure 110 and what it means for public use of things like fentanyl and meth. We need to fix that.
Miller: That seems to be a place where there is the most bipartisan agreement. It’s something that big city and small city mayors are talking about, and you’re on board with that: making it possible for municipalities to cite people for the use, say, of meth or fentanyl. That’s something you support.
Kotek: Yeah, I think the public use of something like fentanyl or meth is a public safety issue. It’s not something any of us anticipated with the passage of Measure 110, but now we’re seeing the consequences of that.
Miller: This quirk that municipalities can cite people for the public drinking of a beer but not for smoking meth.
Kotek: Yeah, I mean, none of us would have figured that out when 110 was at the ballot.
Miller: What about the heart of Measure 110, which is this double thing of decriminalizing those drugs? Setting aside the question of public use, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts, and then shunting some cannabis tax money towards various kinds of drug treatment efforts. Where do you stand on recriminalization?
Kotek: I think Oregonians know – and this is where I stand – that it is a public health issue. We have to figure out how to help people get into recovery. Some people will argue that it is about interaction with the jail system. That wasn’t working before but what we have now is not working, either. We have to reduce the supply that is out there.
That’s why I’ve been talking a lot about a law enforcement response around the availability of things like fentanyl and making sure Measure 110 is doing what it was intended to do, which is bring more resources into recovery and treatment for people to get the help they need. We are not succeeding there. I’m very much focused on that piece while we also enhance what law enforcement can do around going after folks who are dealing. You have to deal with the supply and the demand, both ends of the spectrum.
Miller: Why do you think that we’re not succeeding there? You said that we’re not succeeding yet, right now, in terms of getting resources where they need to be. Why not?
Kotek: Well before Measure 110, the system was not well-constructed. If you talk to anyone who worked in recovery prior to 110, they would say people couldn’t get the help then, either. I will say that the dollars that came through Measure 110 – and I’ve been talking to people around the state about this – those marijuana dollars going into different types of services that couldn’t be funded before … housing, pure services … they are working. Not enough of them.
I think one of the challenges [is] making sure those new dollars are integrated with the existing dollars through Medicaid and other things. We do not have enough inpatient residential treatment. When someone is ready for recovery and they need a place to go, we don’t have that. That’s a workforce issue. That’s a physical location issue. So that’s one of the things that I’m particularly focused on, to make sure that people have a place to go when they are ready to recover.
Miller: If I understand you correctly – aside from the quirk in the law that you talked about earlier of public use and wanting to give localities the ability to cite people for the public use – it doesn’t sound, though, like you’re talking about being in support of major changes to Measure 110. It seems more like you’re saying, “This is overall the right idea. This remains a public health issue, and we have to, over time, get this right,” as opposed to saying, “Here’s a major change to Measure 110.” Did I misunderstand you, or is that essentially what you’re saying? Stay the course, and it will get better?
Kotek: I think most Oregonians would say – and this is where I am – we didn’t get it right, we need to fix it, and we need to continue to provide the health services that are essential.
Miller: But I still don’t understand what you’re saying we didn’t get right.
Kotek: I think that what the legislature is doing with their new joint committee will actually illuminate what could be different under Measure 110. My focus is: Of what we have right now, can it work better? Around public use, we’ve talked about. We don’t have the right tools right now to go after folks who are selling. That’s one of the issues I think they need to take up in February.
Miller: Why can’t we go after the people who are selling? Theoretically in Measure 110, that was just about user amounts. Aside from one thing we’ve heard – that it’s harder for prosecutors to roll up lower-level users and find the dealers – I’m not sure how Measure 110 would affect law enforcement’s ability to crack down on dealers. That’s still completely illegal.
Kotek: It is, and I’ve heard from lawyers in-the-know, like Senator Kate Lieber, [that] there was an Oregon Supreme Court decision recently made it more difficult for law enforcement to prosecute folks who are selling. I’m not a lawyer. I’ll stop there trying to explain it. But if there is a challenge for law enforcement to do their job, we need to fix it.
But going back to your question about 110…. I don’t want to just throw an idea out there to say this is how we’re going to fix it. I’m open to conversations. I don’t believe that just completely undoing it is the answer, either. And I think that’s where most Oregonians are. They’re like, well, we’re not sure we voted for the right thing, but we still think it’s a public health issue. And we need to go after people who are doing illegal things.
We’re trying to do a number of things to address it. I will be interested to see what legislators come up with in the upcoming legislative session. I’m always about put[ting] a solution on the table. If you say this is how it’ll make things better, I am open to that. I’m still waiting for that answer from legislators.
Miller: I want to turn to an impossibly large question here that in some ways is related. It’s an issue that’s come up so many times on our show recently. Essentially, [it’s] about a lack of social connection that we’ve heard from mental health providers, from physical health providers, from social service providers, from a lot of people who talk about loneliness. The cost of loneliness is something that the US Surgeon General has written a whole book about. An epidemic, he says, of loneliness and isolation. Is this something that a state government can address?
Kotek: I think communities can address it. State government, being part of community, can play a role. I agree with what the Surgeon General is saying. If you think about the residual impact of the pandemic, it is that sense of dislocation, that sense of isolation, that sense of [being] disconnected from people. I mean, we’re not even going into our workplaces anymore, even seeing people on a daily basis. We’re living on our screens for those who are still working online or [in] hybrid fashion. The pandemic has really torn us apart as a community. I do think the state has a role to build confidence in our institutions, build confidence in government to do its job, to support community groups who are willing to get out there and build community, to break down that sense of isolation. It’s one of the reasons that it was important for me to visit every county. It’s not performative.
We need to sit down in communities, break bread together, and talk with each other so we can break down that sense of otherness or isolation that really was exaggerated and intensified in the pandemic. We as a country and, frankly, as a world – we’re all healing at the moment. Not to get “woo-y” on here, but we all have a healing process to do. As a state leader, my job is to help be part of the solution there.
That’s why, when I did my opening day message to students for the start of the school year, for my video, I tried to keep it very real for those kids. They’ve been through a lot. They are special, they are important, and we are here to support them to be in a safe place where they can be themselves. There are some really basic things that we need to all be talking about – adults, children alike – so we can feel like a place where we care about each other and take care of each other, ‘cause I think we lost some of that in the pandemic.
Miller: I want to turn to housing production. You want 36,000 new homes to be built in Oregon every year. It would be an 80% increase from recent rates. Can you just give us a big picture update on where that stands? I mean, first of all, are you on track?
Kotek: We are on track to talk about the ideas that will get us there. I gotta be honest, I didn’t think that would happen in the first year. Might even not happen in the second year. But we can ramp up if we put more resources and tools on the ground to get to that type of construction level. That’s why the Housing Production Advisory Council that I set up on my first week in office is poised to have recommendations here by the end of the year. That will be the basis of the conversation in the February session. We have to talk about housing production.
Miller: What do you see as the biggest challenge in terms of ramping up production right now?
Kotek: Housing production is complex. It’s not one thing. It is really a menu of things. And that’s why we are talking about, how do you finance? What are the land use rules? Can government move fast enough in their permitting? Do we have the people to build the housing? It is all of those things, and that’s why the recommendations that will come out of that council will be comprehensive. And honestly, we have to do them all at once.
Miller: When we asked folks on social media what questions they had for you, one of the biggest themes that came up from a number of people was the tension between increasing housing production and long-standing environmental goals in this state.
A representative comment came from Damon Schrosk who wrote, “Why do you want to roll back environmental regulations such as tree codes on all properties under 6,000 square feet when we’re in a climate crisis that relies on trees to make housing livable and less taxing on our healthcare systems, electrical grid, and stormwater systems. How many environmental regulations are you willing to roll back to prioritize low cost for developers?” What’s your response?
Kotek: Well, Damon, I agree with you that we have a climate crisis that we are addressing. I think housing production done well, which means different types of housing that can exist within our current land-use system, is part of solving for climate change here in Oregon.
I believe in our land-use system. I recently attended the 50th anniversary of Senate Bill 100. One of the goals in our land-use system is ousing. It’s goal 10. We can’t have the state we want if people don’t have a place to live. I don’t think it’s an either-or conversation. I know there are concerns out there. They’ve heard some of the recommendations about the things that we are doing around trees and wetlands. I don’t think that’s the core of the issue here. I did ask people to bring up all the topics that you think are relevant. I don’t think it’s about tree codes. I don’t think it’s about wetland regulations. I think those are complex issues that frankly have to wait for the 2025 session, because we really have to dig into [the question of] what are we trying to achieve there.
Miller: Just so I understand, because a lot of people want the specifics here: You’re saying that if the advisory council comes back and says, “We recommend amending tree codes, making it easier for developers to plant in wetlands,” you won’t actually support that legislation in the coming session.
Kotek: I don’t think that’s the priority for next year.
Miller: What about making it easier for cities to build outside the urban growth boundary? That is something that you pushed for hard and almost got in the last session. If more Republicans had actually been there, you would have gotten it. It missed by one vote, because Democrats didn’t support it. Will you push for that in the next session?
Kotek: I think we’re hearing from various quarters that there needs to be an update to how we handle urban growth boundary expansions for the purpose of housing. There were a lot of good concerns raised during session that we have taken under advisement.
We have had very robust dialogue since the legislative session about the whole urban growth boundary expansion topic. What I have heard is, “Okay, maybe that went too far, but we need something. Maybe it has to be more narrowed in certain communities, and maybe we have to do more to assure the affordability of the housing that’s getting built.” All really good things. That’s gonna be reflected in the next set of recommendations that come up for next session.
So I have heard those concerns. We are incorporating those concerns. And I would say to every Oregonian out there who loves their land-use system we have to be willing to adapt under the crisis that we are in. I hope everyone will look at those things and say, “Okay, that’s a reasonable thing to do for a limited amount of time, to deal with the fact that we have a housing crisis in our state.”
Miller: You’ve used the word crisis earlier just to talk about climate change as well. So do you say that climate change represents a crisis in Oregon and in the world?
Kotek: Yeah, I’m not sleeping well these days. There are a lot of things wrong in the world, don’t you think, Dave?
Miller: I do. The reason I ask that question is that, as you know, Oregon students walked out all across the state recently from classes to draw attention to their demand – their request – that you declare a statewide climate emergency, which would give you the authority over all state agents agencies, if I understand correctly, to use the resources available to you, as the state’s chief executive, to prevent or help alleviate the climate crisis. What’s your response?
Kotek: What I would say first to those young people out there – I share your concern and I share your fears and I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure when you get to be my age, there’s still a planet here for you. As governor, I am utilizing every tool that’s at my disposal now. Under the previous administration, we are continuing to implement climate action protocols across state government that are still underway. And let me tell you, those are still being challenged in the courts. I am not veering from that trajectory at all. We are trying to keep those programs and those new goals in place and continue to get our agencies to do that.
But it’s more than that. It’s taking advantage of everything that’s coming down from the Federal government around climate action. Very pleased that the Biden administration just awarded the Pacific Northwest a billion dollars for renewable hydrogen. That is going to be transformative, providing a different type of renewable energy. That will be helpful to meet our climate goals here in the Pacific Northwest. My team is heavily engaged on the south coast about wind power off the coast. It’s complicated, it’s hard, but we are digging in and being part of that.
Everything that I am doing when it comes to climate, my response is always, “yes, we should do that. Let’s do as much as we can.” I understand that it might seem like declaring emergency would make that any different. I don’t think it will because I am 110% committed to doing everything we can in state government to do our part to fight climate change.
Miller: I’m just trying to understand exactly what you’re saying. You’re saying you have all the tools you need to do this. It seems like they’re saying that, by declaring a state of emergency, you would by definition have more tools because you could act unilaterally. You would have more power. Are they wrong about that? Are you saying that a climate emergency, if declared, would not give you more unilateral power to affect change?
Kotek: To do what we did with the housing emergency, we had to quantify and show the exact reasons why having some additional powers would be necessary. I think under the previous administration, that executive approach was already undertaken by Governor Brown and we are staying the course on that while it’s still being challenged in the courts. So it’s not clear to me what more we could do that isn’t already in place. My job is to get it done and do more on top of that.
Miller: I want to turn to homelessness. There is a push right now to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling that came out of Grants Pass. The list of proponents is basically a list of every west coast city of any size – Portland, Seattle, San Francisco L.A., Phoenix, Tacoma, Spokane, San Diego, Honolulu. The League of Oregon Cities of Oregon signed on. So have conservative leaders in Idaho and Arizona. Liberal leaders like California Governor Gavin Newsom – they’re all arguing, and it gets complicated, but essentially they’re arguing that municipalities should have more leeway to clear homeless encampments even if those cities have not built enough shelter beds. And because these cities argue in various ways, they say it’s fiscally impossible for us to build enough shelter beds. And so what courts are asking us to do is basically hamstringing us from functioning in some ways. That’s their basic legal argument. Unless I’m mistaken, unlike Gavin Newsom, you haven’t written a brief and submitted it to the court to say, ‘please take up this case.’ Am I wrong about that?
Kotek: Oh, no, you’re not wrong. We haven’t involved in that case.
Miller: Why not?
Kotek: My complete focus, and the focus of the administration. is to help people who are outside now. Whatever happens at the Supreme Court, if it gets overturned, we will abide by that ruling. State law right now says [that] cities, counties, local government have the ability to set their time, place, and manner ordinances. I fully support that.
Miller: That was based on the Boise decision, which was right before the Grants Pass one, but they’re related. And you’re saying that you support that legal precedent and you support current Oregon law as opposed to all these places that are trying to create a different legal precedent.
Kotek: Until that changes, that is the legal precedent. That communities have to provide clarity around shelter and where people can be, and cities and counties, local governments, can enforce those rules. I meet every other week with Mayor Wheeler and Chair Vega Pederson in Multnomah County. It’s not just in Portland, but it’s obviously a serious problem in Portland. My question is, “what are you doing to provide day services for people so they are not camping on the streets in the middle of daylight? What are you telling people where they can go? What can we do to provide more shelter?”
Miller: What do you hear when you ask those questions every other week?
Kotek: Well, it depends. I don’t hear the specificity that I always want to hear, but I do hear that they get it, they know that things have to be different. There is more shelter capacity in Portland. I was just reading the other day that a place that was notorious for places or where it was an unsafe camping situation that has been shut down and people are being asked to move into the alternative shelter sites that the city has prepared. That’s how this should work. We should provide safer places for people to be than on a sidewalk or on the side of a highway. That is the humane thing to do. My job, as governor, is to help those communities have what they need to do that. We are fighting hard every day for the resources that we receive from the legislature. We will be back next February with another ask. My job, as Governor, is to say, “hey, legislature, we need more money for shelter. We need more money for services.” Because until we build enough housing, those individuals need to go somewhere.
Miller: What do you think all these city leaders, or state leaders in some cases, are getting wrong then?
Kotek: I think they’re under a lot of pressure and I’m sympathetic to that. And we have to serve people who are our neighbors who are outside.
Miller: I want to turn to Portland later. But we’ve talked already a little bit about it and there are a lot of other places in this state, including the Lower Umatilla Basin – this is something that we talked about last time when we sat down together – widespread nitrate contamination there. Your administration embarked on a big testing effort starting in the spring. The Oregon Health Authority announced recently that it met its self- imposed goal of contacting every household in the region that has drinking water from a well and offering nitrate testing and other resources to those folks by the end of September. They said we met that. But a local nonprofit says that only about a third or a half – the numbers are a little bit hard to pin down exactly – of the wells in the basin were actually tested. Is that high enough?
Kotek: The state hit its mark by the end of September of reaching out to every contaminated well owner that we could think of to make sure they understood there might be a problem. Was everyone reached? No, but I think if anyone’s ever canvassed on any particular issue, they know you’re never going to reach everyone. Of the people we reach, they received information that said “here’s how you can get tested, here’s what the problem is.” Now, we’re moving into phase two, which is [asking]: What is the follow up with everyone we did have contact with? Are they taking advantage of the testing? Can we get mitigation? That’s the next step. Because we’re not done. Telling people about the problem is not [the] conclusion, but it was the first step.
The other issue is we’re still at the final stages of the settlement with the Port of Morrow and some of the users who are putting the nitrates into the water table. There is work to do there. How are we going to reduce the practice that has caused the problem? That’s also part of the solution. And we’re doing both at the same time.
Miller: That’s the key future-oriented question here. What do you see – as opposed to a water delivery or filters, which really do seem like band aids in a sense, necessary but insufficient – what about ongoing pollution from industry or agriculture?
Kotek: I only support a settlement that does get to long term solutions. There will have to be a new filtration system at the Port of Morrow to curtail long-term pollution. We have to have different practices in the short-term. Like for example, winter application. Can we put the water somewhere else until we have the treatment system in place? We have to get some folks on public water systems. But that’s not going to work for everyone. So getting back to homeowners and renters to say, if you don’t fit into any of those categories, let’s get you a different way to make sure your water is safer. Here’s one of the things that I want to explore right now, that I’ve said to my team. We’re hearing there aren’t enough contractors who can come in and do the water purifiers that you need in your home. Well, we better figure that out. Let’s train some people to do that. Let’s get more people into those homes who want a safer way to get their water. You shouldn’t have to be lugging jugs into your house. We are taking this week by week. We are focused on it. Our goal is to have clean water for the folks in the Lower Umatilla Basin.
Miller: You’ve now taken part in two of the three planned closed-door meetings of the Portland Central City Task Force that you convened. What’s come from those meetings?
Kotek: Very frank conversations. A lot of good energy about some problems to fix for the central city. And I’ve been very clear with people who are participating. There are hundreds of people – not just people in the task force – there are committees, we’ve gotten thousands of people responding to the survey. We’re taking that all in. And my basic ask is we need an action plan by December when we all go to the Business Summit that says we have a six to nine month plan that is going to make improvements in this whole host of areas. We have to see progress. It’s not ok to just talk about the problem. We have to have an action plan. And that’s what we’re focused on.
Miller: What do you think is gonna be in the action plan broadly? I don’t suppose you can give us all the specifics now. There’s still one more meeting and there’s subcommittees, but you’ve met twice. You’ve had all those conversations. You’ve seen all those comments. Can Portlanders, can Oregonians, have some sense for the end result?
Kotek: What Oregonians and Portlanders are going to see is clear statements – here’s the problem, here are the action items, here’s who’s going to be in charge, and here’s what it might cost to do that. That is our framing, whether it’s community safety or livability or homelessness or tax structure or just what we want downtown to look like. What is the future of Portland in the central city core? There’s going to be very specific steps, and it’s going to be both private and public partnerships. It’s not just going to be a big ask of money from the state. That’s not the approach we should take. There might be a need for some resources. But what’s the private sector going to do? What are people volunteering, what do they want to do? This is their city. It’s our city. It’s not just some other that’s going to fix it. We all have to be in it together and that action plan is going to be very specific. Here’s the problem. Here are the things we need to do. We need you to be a part of it.
Miller: Mayor Wheeler kicked off the meeting by saying that he wanted you to send 100 state troopers, 1/5 of the state police force, to Portland. You said you can’t do that, but you did announce a “Strategic Enforcement and Disruptive Initiative.” What does that actually mean?
Kotek: I heard the mayor say we have some needs in local law enforcement. I went and spoke with the superintendent of the state police and said “what can we do as it pertains particularly to the sale of fentanyl and meth.” And they said we could do more. We can provide some detective services. We can bring some bike police in to do some of the saturation patrols. And we’re doing that. We’re seeing more arrests, we’re seeing more dealers getting cited and arrested. And we probably have a few more things up our sleeves. I’m not going to tell you what they are. But there is a stronger relationship between the Oregon State Police and the Portland Police Bureau for the purpose of keeping our streets safer. And so we’re just going to keep doing what we can. We might have to come and get additional resources. But I’m not going to say we’ll just wait until we get more money. Let’s do with what we have because it’s so urgent on the streets right now.
Miller: How many additional state police personnel are now working in the Portland area who weren’t before?
Kotek: My understanding is they are doing it in different shifts and I would prefer not to go into details because again, we want a little bit of an element of surprise of how we’re approaching this because we’re going after folks who are watching what we’re doing.
Miller: I don’t think a number is going to change criminals. I mean, if you say there’s 10 more, there’s 50 more, and I am a fentanyl dealer, I’m not sure that’s going to change my behavior. Do you have the number?
Kotek: Our goal is to make it as uncomfortable as possible for you to want to sell drugs in downtown Portland. I’m not the superintendent of state police. I think the number fluctuates. That’s why I don’t want to say it’s this number or that number. But what I can tell you is more resources are going to the city of Portland with the Portland police. And we’re also encouraging the Portland police to try some new things. If I have any frustration, it’s not just about resources, it’s about how we do our business differently. And I think the state police is bringing some peer support to doing some things differently.
Miller: Can you give us an example or is that also a trade secret?
Kotek: I would prefer not to comment on that. All I can tell people is we’re doing more to go after the folks who are selling.
Miller: You recently sold your house in Portland, right? What’s it like to do that as a leader – somebody who for many years represented Portland in the House and now, as Governor, living full time in Salem as opposed to living in Portland?
Kotek: Well, I confess I do miss the neighborhood because I lived there a long time and was very proud to represent North and Northeast Portland. But the First Lady and I made a decision early on that we would live in Salem from day one, which we did. We literally moved in the day we were sworn in.
Miller: To Mahonia Hall.
Kotek: To Mahonia Hall. Our stuff came a couple of days later. We lived in the residence from the very first day because that’s what it means to be governor. I’m a governor for the whole state. That means working out of Salem. Being part of the center of the state, which is Salem. Portland is certainly important. I get back for work reasons, but I live in Salem. I serve the state from Salem and we made that decision early on. So we had to sell a house that we lived in for 19 years. But that’s what it means to serve the state.
Miller: Has that changed the way you think about Oregon?
Kotek: I think living in Salem and living in the valley certainly provides more flexibility for me to just experience a different part of the state. Even before I became governor, I spent a lot of time traveling the state as a speaker of the house. It’s not like I lived all my time in Portland. What’s great about being in Salem is, I’m like every other Oregonian. It’s kind of a reminder what it means to come to a new place and you have to learn things differently. That’s always just good for reflecting on who you are and what you want out of your life. I think if anyone who’s listening to this has ever moved for a job, they know what it’s like. The ups and downs of moving to a new community, [to] get to experience new things. It’s also hard because you [have to] get a new dentist, get a new vet, all the things you have to do. I’m just like everybody else. I moved for a job and it’s given me a time to reflect on what it means to be outside of Portland, which I think is a good thing.
Miller: I wanna turn to your One Oregon Tour. There are two maps right in front of us that make it impossible to not think about it. Clearly, it looms large. You’ve mentioned a couple of times visiting different communities. And you pledged to visit all 36 Oregon counties in your first year. You have four left. Is that right?
Kotek: Yes. We have visited 32 of the 36 counties and we have four left.
Miller: After your visit to Malhour and Baker counties, you said this in a statement: “It’s not enough to listen. It’s no secret, this part of Oregon hasn’t felt heard. It’s my job to take back the wisdom that I gain here and make adjustments.” What adjustments have you made?
Kotek: I think as I look at decisions we are making - you make decisions every week in this job, you know, something comes up – to have that perspective of, if it’s an ag issue, what would the folks at Macy Farms in Culver think? They grow carrot seed. What would they think about that? Has it changed something specific? Hard to tell at this point, I’m just gonna be really honest. But every time you bring a different perspective to the conversation, you’re like, is it really gonna work for that community? It was important when I was interviewing for the new head of the Department of Ag to think about, does this person have a good sense of what it means to be worried about drought in a different part of the state? And I think she does. So I’m very happy with our choice there at the agency.
So it is trying to think from different points of view every time I have a conversation. But specifically, I mean, I’ll just give you one small example again from Jefferson County when we were out there. I met with some farmers who grow mint and they make mint oil out of it and they’re having problems with being able to sell it for reasons that are important to the market. And I’m like, well, what can we do to sell mint oil that’s made in Oregon so this farmer can continue to sell this product? So we’re still exploring that. When we had the problems with the cherry harvest, I visited with cherry producers up in The Dalles and I knew this is a problem if they can’t sell their cherries at the price that they think they can sell them. So even though we’re not sure if we’ll have success, we sent to the federal government, “we need an emergency declaration about the distortion in the cherry market this year.” So I elevate things differently because of the conversations I’ve had.
Miller: The Capitol Chronicle had an article not too long ago. And they mentioned that when Oregon’s Democratic U.S. Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, hold town halls in each Oregon county every year, uninvited Oregonians can address them directly and give them a piece of their minds. My understanding is that your tours have largely been in small group settings that haven’t afforded Oregonians that same level of access. Why not?
Kotek: We made a conscious choice early on to create spaces where we can have dialogues about particular topics [like] housing [and] behavioral health. And we have been evolving over the course of the tour. I’m meeting a lot with more local leaders who, small d democracy, represent the thoughts and views of the people in their community. I also tell people one visit is not the only visit. These are the first visits. I would like to be back and have different types of interactions with everyone.
I’ve also done a lot of town halls as an elected leader over the years. I gotta be really honest, town halls can be kind of conversations where people ask questions and then you talk at them. I didn’t want to do a lot of talking. I wanna do a lot of listening and so we’re trying this approach. Maybe we’ll do something different going forward but I don’t think town halls are the only way to engage with individuals.
Miller: I mean, but it does occur to me now that there could be a parallel between this sort of, in some ways, closed-door version of a listening tour and the Central City Task Force in Portland, which is also not open to the public. What unifies them is… I guess the question is, are you being exposed enough to Oregonians who vehemently disagree with you and want the chance to say it to your face?
Kotek: Well, I’m certainly aware that a lot of people didn’t vote for me and have different viewpoints. We pay attention to social media. We read the paper. I read letters to the editor. There is a diverse set of opinions in the state and I’m very aware of that and welcome that, happy to have conversations. I don’t think the Portland Central City Task Force and our approach to the listening tour says anything other than, sometimes we have to do things a little differently to have authentic honest conversations and sometimes…
Miller: Meaning, if it’s closed to the public and things aren’t being recorded, you think you’re gonna get more honest takes from the different members, that they’ll feel more free to speak their mind?
Kotek: Well, I think especially if you’re in a small town and you’re talking with folks who are providing a certain type of service, they might not feel comfortable saying certain things out in a public setting. I try to keep these conversations as frank and confidential as possible. And I think that’s what you’re seeing in the Central City Task Force.
What I think Oregonians wanna see from any conversations that I have is results. They wanna see things that put actions in place, that we actually have solutions. We’re taking in all the feedback we can all the time, whether it’s me in person or in other modes of communication. So when it comes to the Portland Central City Task Force, I would ask folks to weigh in through the survey or through the folks that are serving on the various committees, again, hundreds of people. And then when you see that action plan, I think you’re going to see things you like and we need everyone to be part of the solution.
Miller: We’ve talked a little bit about the upcoming legislative session, the short session, but I want to zero in on it now in some of the time we have left. What are your biggest priorities for this short session?
Kotek: Well, the top priority is housing production. The legislature did make some progress in the session that wrapped up but we have more to do. So I’ve been very clear with legislative leaders and both on the housing side and the leadership there that housing production has to be the number one priority for the session. We’ll certainly be looking at some adjustments in the budget. There’s always adjustments. I’m gonna be asking lawmakers to do more on supporting early child care, child care providers. There are some issues that they didn’t get right on the budget. No harm, no foul, that happens. So we’ll be asking for some additional resources. We’ll need more resources for shelters because the deal is, I’m not here to just build more shelter capacity. But we do have to have a baseline of shelter capacity across the state that is there for people who need it while we’re also building more housing. So, I’ve let legislative leaders know I’ll be asking for resources that Oregonians need.
Miller: What happens if there’s another Republican walk out?
Kotek: I’m doing everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’ve been very clear with legislative leaders, we have to have more open dialogue now about how we want the session to go and how we can work together on the top issues facing the state. What’s good about housing production? It is a bipartisan priority. And so I’m trying to keep people focused on bipartisan priorities so we can have a successful legislative session.
Miller: Is that another way of saying that you are saying to democratic leaders, don’t bring up bills on issues like guns or abortion?
Miller: Those are issues you feel passionately about as a long-standing Democratic leader. How do you feel telling Democratic leaders no, don’t pursue these issues that I care a lot about because Republicans could derail these other things that I also care a lot about?
Kotek: I would frame it differently. I would say that Oregonians need the legislature to deliver on the top priorities of the state, which is housing, behavioral health and funding core services. This is not a time to have a partisan fight over things that, frankly, they dealt with during the long session. This is a short session to be focused on the priorities of the state. That’s how I would frame it, not the other way around.
Miller: Would you support some kind of change to Oregon’s constitution to change the quorum requirement? And making it in line with the vast majority of state legislatures to basically accomplish what public unions told Oregonians they would accomplish in the ballot measure that was spectacularly unsuccessful at preventing walkouts? It was a long question. But you get the question.
Kotek: I think we have to see what the court says about the measure that is in place. I think people questioned whether they would lose their jobs if they didn’t show up.
Miller: But haven’t we already learned that even that doesn’t matter? I mean, what would prevent Republicans from saying fine, I will serve for two years or for six years in the House or the Senate. I can walk out as much as I want. I’ll just do it for that term and somebody else can then be elected in my position and do the same thing. I mean, that doesn’t prevent walkouts. It just says if a court agrees that you can’t run again if you have too many unexcused absences.
Kotek: Nothing in the law, at the end of the day, will be foolproof for keeping us from walkouts. This is about the relationships you build, how you treat each other, how you treat folks who aren’t in the majority. I think we have work to do there. If Oregonians believe we need a stronger set of tools around quorum, then I would be supportive of that. At the end of the day, people can still walk off even if they think they’re gonna lose their job. And we saw that.
I think we also haven’t seen the true consequences of what voters passed. People are gonna lose their jobs, I think at the end of the day, because that’s what voters asked for. I think people are gonna think twice the next time they do it.
Miller: You think they’re gonna lose their jobs because courts will say yes, you cannot run again, or you think that they’ll be punished by voters for walking out?
Kotek: Probably the former, because I think some Oregonians think this is what is a form of protest. I would argue when people don’t feel heard, you see this kind of extremism. So our goal is to actually work together better.
Miller: The most recent statewide test numbers for K-12 schools came out last month and they’re really bleak. Basically, no improvement from post-pandemic lows - 40% of students were at the proficient level for reading and writing [and] 30% were proficient at math. Eighth graders in particular were even worse - 25% hit that math proficiency target. What went through your mind when you saw those numbers?
Kotek: Oh, I was super disappointed.
Miller: Were you surprised?
Kotek: No, because I think it’s a reflection somewhat of the pandemic. But that excuse is only going to go for so long. right?
Miller: It’s been a couple of years since students were back.
Kotek: Yes. And I don’t think we can underestimate the impact on students and on the educational system writ large. We need to see progress there. So it’s unacceptable. We now have a new director of the Department of Education. I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Williams to work directly with school districts to change what they’re doing. And we’ve started to have those conversations. For those poorly performing school districts. I’m not gonna wait around for the next test scores. We’re already trying to figure out how we can help them be more successful for the next go around.
Miller: What’s an example of the interventions you’re talking about?
Kotek: Well, Dr. Williams has only been on board for a couple months. We are trying to figure that out. My guess what it’s gonna look like is, being in location with those districts, saying what are you doing different? Here’s what your data says, what are you doing differently and how are you using resources differently? And if we don’t have enough tools to do that, we will be back asking for additional tools. I actually think we can use the bully pulpit at the Department of Education to see more progress.
Miller: Speaking of the bully pulpit, do you plan to do anything currently? Are you doing something behind the scenes to prevent a strike at Oregon’s largest school district?
Kotek: My team watches every large labor disruption, whether it’s in schools or in hospitals. We pay attention very closely. I hope they don’t get there because that’s not good for the students. It’s not good for the families. And we will engage if we need to engage.
Miller: What might that look like?
Kotek: I don’t know, but my goal is to make sure students and parents have what they need. What we have seen is this is happening across the country and school districts are just another place of tension around what people are getting paid. I do think we have to do everything we can to support the folks who are doing the day job of educating our kids in a way that’s sustainable. One of the things I think we will see over the next couple of years is having a conversation as a state – what does it mean to truly compensate our folks that are in this classroom every day to get their work done? When you have some districts having substantially higher salaries, it causes some impact, people move from district to district. That is bad for students. They need predictability and stability. So I think we’re gonna have to take that up. What does it mean to have fair compensation in all of our districts?
Miller: Kate Brown, your predecessor, had the lowest approval rating out of any U.S. governor in her last term. Now you do, according to a series of polls over the course of this year by the firm Morning Consult. How do you explain that?
Kotek: Well, I did see that but I think my numbers improved on the second go around. So…
Miller: They improved a little bit and then you were still 50th out of 50.
Kotek: I’m room for improvement.
Miller: OK. I mean, it’s a serious question. I’m seriously curious about how you read this? What you think this says about either the jobs you or Kate Brown are doing or did, or what it says about Oregonians?
Kotek: I think, globally, there’s dissatisfaction with government. There’s a lack of trust.
Miller: The reason I ask this is that the beauty of this poll, or the challenge of it, is that it takes the global thing into account. And it says that out of all of the dissatisfied Americans in the country, Oregonians say, my governor is the one who I dislike the most. So, I mean, people all over experience the pandemic, experience all kinds of challenges. But Oregonians are the ones saying I don’t like my governor as much as other people like their governors. And I’m curious why you think that is?
Kotek: I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation of what that actual polling shows…
Miller: But what does approval mean to you?
Kotek: So I wake up every day wanting to do the best job possible for Oregonians based on what I said I would do. And we’re in month 10, we’re not spending hundreds of millions of dollars to educate people about what we’re doing. My job is to get out there every day and show that we’re making progress. And I wanna let folks know that I’m listening. We are working hard every day. And I think we’re making progress. I’m not saying people feel that or know that, but that’s what my goal is every single day.
Miller: Tina Kotek, thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it.
Kotek: You’re welcome.
Miller: Tina Kotek is the governor of Oregon.
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