A conversation with Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek on education, affordable housing and the hardest thing about her new job
OPB's "Think Out Loud" host Dave Miller talked with Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek about homelessness, affordable housing, education and other top challenges facing the state.
In her first seven weeks in office, Democratic Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek has emphasized three big priorities: housing and homelessness, mental and behavioral health care and K-12 education.
Kotek joined Dave Miller on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” recently.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Dave Miller: Oregon’s on-time graduation rate is among the bottom 10 states nationally. Our math and science scores are well below average. Reading as well. And funding alone doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation because our funding is about in the middle of the pack nationally. Why? What’s not working in Oregon?
Tina Kotek: What I heard on the campaign trail was public education is very important to Oregonians. We want to make sure that every child has what they need: a safe classroom so they can be successful. I was a leader in making sure we could get more resources into our schools with the passage of the Student Success Act. Then the pandemic intervened, and so we don’t know fully the impact of those dollars. But I can tell you: those dollars, if spent well and used wisely by our school districts, I believe will increase our graduation rates and really provide that sound footing for students to be able to graduate and be successful as adults.
We have seen, because of the pandemic and a whole lot of things, that our 3rd graders are not where they need to be on reading. So I have a very specific focus in my budget on early literacy, including money for summer school as well as increased training for our educators, more supports in our schools, so our students can be reading. Now we’re looking at third, fourth and fifth grade because of the pandemic. I think we can make success, and my goal is to change those numbers in the positive direction.
Dave Miller: I want to go back to the first question I just asked cause I don’t feel like I’m clear on your vision of what hasn’t been working. You mentioned the bill you passed that you really helped to shepherd through to get more money to education, but what isn’t working? Why are we where we are? In your mind, is it just a question of funding?
Tina Kotek: Well, our graduation rates are improving and they’re not where they need to be. And it’s not just resources, not just money. I want to make sure that we’re holding our school districts accountable for how the money is being spent. Those new dollars in particular are supposed to be spent based on community planning, working with the community about — what do you need to make sure students can be successful? Well, how are they doing there? I want to go back to Measure 98 and what is now the High School Success program with a focus on career and technical education and making sure students have more support for graduation. We just saw an audit on that. It’s working, so we know how to do this. It’s a combination of resources, real set goals and accountability to make those goals happen. And I think our Department of Education can be more proactive in working with our districts to make sure they are hitting the mark. And that is something I want to bring. Get the resources but also make sure that they’re spent well in a way to get to the goals we have.
Dave Miller: I still don’t have clarity on what you think why we are where we are. Why is it that we’re performing below the national average in so many ways?
Tina Kotek: Well, I do think it has been partially a funding issue. If you recall, in 2019, when we passed the Student Success Act, it was a fix for a 30-year problem to add more resources into our schools. But we didn’t just say: “Here’s more money.” We said: “It has to go to these specific things: the social and emotional health of our students, career and technical education.” And honestly we haven’t had a chance to see those dollars perform because of the pandemic. I think it’s resources, it’s how we target. And honestly, my biggest focus is to make sure every child has success. I don’t want to see the numbers we see for our under-resourced communities. We have Black, Indigenous, students of color who are not meeting the mark. That is on us. We are not providing the right types of resources for those students because every child has the ability to succeed. And honestly, we have more work to do there.
Dave Miller: Let’s turn specifically to reading. Just to give folks some numbers, as a reminder, 61% of third graders in Oregon are not fully proficient at reading and later grades do not really improve much. A third of seventh graders are substantially below grade level in reading. We focused on this issue last week and we heard about what’s known as the science of reading. It’s a body of research going back decades now, basically showing that children are much more likely to learn how to read if they’re taught it in a very systematic way, based on evidence. Do you agree broadly that the best practices for teaching should be used?
Tina Kotek: Absolutely, that’s why it’s a priority in my budget and also why I’m working with Representative Kropf and other legislators on an early literacy package that says we should have evidence-based practices in our schools. There’s not one set curriculum to improve reading, but there are ways to go about it and what tools that we’re giving to our educators to make that happen. We also have to make sure that our students are ready to be successful. No matter what we teach them, if their home life is terrible or they have depression, we have to make sure the whole student is ready to learn as well. So it’s not just curriculum. But we do need to support our teachers. We do need to talk about evidence-based practices and that’s what that bill is going to do. And you have to put resources behind it because we’re not doing that sufficiently. I also want to say we have to go upstream. What are we teaching our educators? The more I learn about what our teacher prep programs are doing, I’m concerned. So we’re starting to have that conversation with our teacher prep colleges here in Oregon and say: “What are you doing?” This for the future, not just in the next couple of years.
Dave Miller: I want to play an exchange we had last week with a teacher of a professor of education. Ronda Fritz is at Eastern Oregon University and she’s the director of the Reading Clinic there. I asked her if she thought the state should mandate the use of curricula that are truly based on the science of reading. This is the exchange:
Ronda Fritz: Do I think we need to mandate that?
Dave Miller: Yeah, from Salem.
Ronda Fritz: Oh gosh, that’s a big can of worms. But I guess my answer would be: ‘Yes.’ Because if we don’t put the right tools in the hands of teachers, then providing them this knowledge will just be frustrating. Because if we require them to do letters or whatever professional development, and then we go into the classroom and they have these materials that don’t match, that’s another that’s going to be a huge roadblock to any change in terms of student outcomes. So, yeah, I guess I would say it needs to be mandated.
Dave Miller: You introduced a bill, or had on your behalf, that’s essentially a grant program. It would give districts more money if they want to focus on teaching students or doing summer work or giving teachers more understanding, more grounding in what the bill says are evidence- based methods. But you don’t actually in that bill lay out specifically the exact curricula or the underpinnings of the curricula that you’d like to see. Why not require from the Oregon Department of Education that districts use the best practices? There’s decades of data now.
Tina Kotek: That bill, as introduced, is not where we want it to be. So it’s getting amended, and we’re working with Representative Kropf who also has a bill to combine our forces of trying to get the right bill and the right set of investments done.
Dave Miller: But that too is sort of similar. It’s more carrot than stick. As it’s written now, it also says: “The district, if you’d like to do more, here’s more money. But you have to do these things if you want our money.” It doesn’t say: “You have to do this.” So broadly, we can set aside where the bill stands, do you think the Oregon Department of Education should mandate this kind of curriculum?
Tina Kotek: Right now, the Department of Ed is working on an early literacy framework which will provide more guidance for the districts. And I’m pushing them to get something ready so we can inform what we’re gonna do this summer because we want our summer programming to be based on some guidance from the state. I also believe strongly that our Department of Education should be more directive on what we can do. Now, I think what’s clear about the curriculum is we don’t want to say: “This is the curriculum.” I don’t think we want to do that.
Dave Miller: Why not?
Tina Kotek: Well, because there’s not one perfect curriculum. But I think we might want to get to a menu of, here are the 10 types of curriculum that are evidence-based that you should utilize, versus I just pick one out of the air. I would like us to get there and give more direction for the districts. And if they’re not picking one of the ones that are evidence-based, we want to know why.
Dave Miller: As opposed to saying: “You can’t do it.” You want to know why?
Tina Kotek: I don’t think we know yet to know how best to encourage our districts. But what has normally worked is more of a carrot. Like: here’s the guidance, here are your choices. And what I know from districts is they need resources. At the end of the day, the administrators, the boards and the educators all want to do the right thing for the students. We believe in local control here. So it’s that balance between decision making and these are the really the best things to do.
Dave Miller: We could focus on reading because it’s a glaring issue right now, but the broader issue here is how much control should Salem exert, and how important and when do you think local control and letting districts and school boards make big decisions should that win the day? Another way to put it is: what would it take for you to say, “The status quo is not working and it’s time for Salem to Bigfoot a little bit to help kids out?”
Tina Kotek: Well, one of the things that Oregonians should know, if they don’t already: the biggest funder of our schools is the state. It’s not local property taxes, it is the state. So I think we have a role to say: “Look, we need outcomes, we have direction here.” I’ve had a track record, in the past, when I was speaker of the House supporting programs that said we need to have better outcomes for our students. English language learners — very good example — and what we did in that case was we set new standards. It’s always important to clarify the standards for districts. If something is not clear, you gotta make it very clear. And then you say, “Here’s some money to help you get there. And if you can’t, we’re gonna bring in technical assistance to help you get there.” These kind of collective improvement processes, if they’re not hitting their goals. That has worked and we have to continue to do that I think for every area of complex challenges that we have. And I don’t want the Department of Ed just to be a place where you send reports. Those reports have to mean something and the agency has to be able to say: “Hey, you’re not hitting your goals.” Right now, the only tool for the Department of Education, if you’re not hitting your goals, is to take money back. That’s not a real tool. No one’s going to do that. What we need to be is in partnership with our school leadership to actually get the goals we need.
Dave Miller: If I’m a parent right now listening to this, I can imagine thinking: “Wait a minute, this is just like more blather, or at least well-meaning delay and saying, ‘let’s let the process work.’ But meanwhile, my kid who has a learning disability or is two grades behind and wasn’t in school in person for a year and a half and is struggling. What are you going to do right now for my kid?” And I can imagine that person not hearing any help coming anytime soon.
Tina Kotek: Well, I know that parents want the best for their kids, and I want the best for their children because we need our youngest to be able to succeed and be successful. What I will say is I believe in outcomes. I believe in not just throwing money at a problem. It is not about the money at the end of the day. Yes, we can always use more resources. And we have to make sure that we have a north star that we’re going towards something, and this is how many students are graduating. If you’re not graduating, why? If you’re not reading by grade level, why? And when I saw that there were some districts that had zero students, zero students reading at grade level in the last report, I was like: “Why aren’t we on their doorstep right now?” Now, I wasn’t elected yet.
Dave Miller: But you are now.
Tina Kotek: I am now, and I’m going to have very honest conversations with districts. If you can’t do it, you’re going to have to explain, or we’re going to have to spend more time with you.
Dave Miller: I want to turn to housing and homelessness. Just this week, you told lawmakers that you want them to put $155 million towards homelessness. It was more than you’d asked them seven weeks ago in your first inaugural address. What would you want that money to be spent on?
Tina Kotek: It is a fulfillment of a commitment to reduce unsheltered homelessness this year. No one should be living on the streets. If you’re living on the streets, we have to help you get into shelter, connect you to services and get you into permanent housing. There are a lot of good things going on in the state right now. Around the state, every corner of the state has a challenge. My job as governor is to bring new energy, resources and focused work to move the needle. And that $155 million will keep more than 8,000 Oregonians from becoming homeless in the first place; it will add 700 new shelter beds; it will make sure that once someone has moved from the streets to a shelter to housing, that there will be some help to stay in housing with some rent assistance. We have to do all of this. And it also means more behavioral health services and outreach connecting to people, that one-on-one connection. Look, people don’t want to see folks living outside. I don’t want to see people living outside. That $155 million dollars needs to happen now so we can make progress this year.
Dave Miller: We asked our listeners in various places to give us their questions for you. Sam Driborr on Twitter wrote, “Governor Kotek talks a lot about the humane solutions and treatment we should provide to combat homelessness, as she should. But what is the contingency plan for those who do not want treatment or to leave their camps? Where is the line, and what are the options Governor Kotek is considering?”
Tina Kotek: I appreciate the question, Sam. Let’s start with moving the folks, helping people move who are most ready to move, right? If we can show progress, particularly for our most vulnerable: our seniors, our veterans, families with kids, young people coming out of foster care. If we can show progress there, that sends a message that we will get this done. I don’t know every single person living outside will accept services or want to be housed, but I think the majority of them do. So we’re starting there first, and because it means community safety and it’s just the humane thing to do. So it’s not an either-or conversation for me, but let’s start making progress. And there are folks who are ready to go now.
Dave Miller: What’s your overall vision in terms of what you think we need to do to build a system or a society that makes homelessness brief or rare?
Tina Kotek: Well, we need more housing. And I know there’s been this false debate about, well, is it homelessness or housing? It’s both. I set a goal on my very first day and full day in office, an executive order that said that we would build 36,000 new units of housing every year for the next decade. And that’s an ambitious goal.
Dave Miller: Eighty percent or so more than we’re doing right now?
Tina Kotek: Yeah, it’s a really big goal. That shows people the depth of the challenge here. We can’t do business as usual. We need more housing. There is nothing more frustrating when someone is doing everything possible and everything right. Let’s say they have an addiction and they get sober and they’re waiting. I just read a story the other day. Someone’s like, “I’m ready, I’ve done everything right,” and they don’t have a place to live. We have to have more housing. So we have to show energy on both the immediate goals of ending unsheltered homelessness for as many people as possible, and finding a place for people to live. So we’re going to build a lot more housing.
Dave Miller: What incentives do you think are going to be most helpful in getting the private sector? Because that’s where the vast majority of this housing is going to come from.
Tina Kotek: We’re gonna have to be creative and we’re going to have to be willing to change how we do business now. The executive order that I issued calls for a Housing Production Council. I think we’ll have our first meeting scheduled for next week, and it’s a variety of things. It’s how you finance these projects, how you reduce red tape and bureaucratic barriers to getting things done quickly, that zoning and other types of design restrictions. We have to talk about the workforce who’s actually going to build all this housing. Particularly in some communities, they don’t have anyone to build the housing, much less finance it. What is the partnership with the private sector? It’s not going to be the public sector. Now, my budget puts a billion dollars towards the construction of affordable housing, the largest number we’ve seen in that program since I started doing this, and it’s absolutely needed. But the state government is not gonna build all the housing. We need the private sector. So there are private sector representatives, developers, architects, planners, that’s going to be on this council saying we need to do things differently. Everything has to be on the table if we’re going to build more housing.
Dave Miller: You’ve been clear that this housing production increase goal is maybe a decade in the making, maybe more than that. Obviously gubernatorial terms are four years. But there are elections every two years and voters are frustrated right now. How do you think about the timeline of the potential solution and the timeline in voters’ brains?
Tina Kotek: I think voters are smart. If you say you are trying and you’re showing progress, four years from now, hopefully they will say we need four more years. But honestly, I’m not focused on that. What I’m focused on is putting the structures in place that promote the housing we need. You know I worked on a bill when I was speaker, the bill that said within the urban growth boundary, we need different types of housing. We don’t need just single family homes and big multi-family apartments. We need duplexes and quads and townhomes. That is now law, so let’s start building that different type of housing in the urban growth boundaries.
Dave Miller: What are you thinking will be visible from this current effort in just four years?
Tina Kotek: We need to see fewer people living on the streets. We need to see people who are suffering from behavioral health, mental health or substance issues getting more help. And that is another one of my priorities in my budget because people are suffering right now and that has to change. We’re going to see more construction. In the next year, we have projects that are in the pipeline. My budget says let’s make sure they get done, and let’s put more money in there while we work with the private sector and developers to get more help there. And it’s really clear, it’s not just really low-income affordable housing. It is workforce housing. When a teacher moves to a community and doesn’t have a place to live, that is a problem. And we have to get more people into homeownership. The whole spectrum of housing is really clogged right now. People stay renting because they can’t buy. We need different homeownership opportunities as well. That’s why the townhomes are a great choice, right? Your first home might be a townhome because we can build those easier, they’re less expensive. How do we incentivize that? And I can tell you local government has to make it easier to construct.
Dave Miller: And along those lines, there is a bill that lawmakers are considering to do this, and if it passed, the state for the first time, would have to estimate how much new housing every city in the state needs. And then if cities don’t actually start to work towards that goal, then they could be held accountable in some way. What could that accountability look like? What would you be prepared to have the state do to force cities to build more homes?
Tina Kotek: In my budget, I have a bill that calls for a Housing Production Accountability Office that will say: “Hey, if you’re having trouble building, because someone’s not following the law, we will be on your side, we might even have to get to fines.” I don’t want to go there yet. What I want to say is: “How do we help our local governments change their processes to build more housing?”
Dave Miller: It seems like these bills are talking about overturning some long standing practices in the way things have been done in this state?
Tina Kotek: The way I look at it is it’s being true to the land use system we all believe in as Oregonians because that land use system, among other things, has something called Goal 10. Goal 10, which we have been ignoring, says there will be adequate housing in our communities.
Dave Miller: Is the first goal about public input?
Tina Kotek: We can have public input but if people want to protect the urban growth boundaries we have, because we don’t want sprawl, we want to protect our forests and farmlands, I am 100% there. And we don’t get to just say: “Well, sorry, you can’t live here.” We have to have an acceptance of the land use system. We have to promote growth within the urban growth boundaries, and have sensible strategic conversations of urban growth expansion so we can have places for people to live. We are economically constrained right now by the fact we don’t have enough housing. We have a public health emergency because too many people are on the streets because we don’t have enough housing. This is about the future of Oregon and I think it’s very Oregon to say: “Our land use system says more housing, let’s get it done, do it right.”
Dave Miller: There’s another issue that ties into this, a bill that would give you, as governor, the power to redraw urban growth boundaries through executive order, bypassing the current system as a way to lure chip manufacturers, semiconductor companies to the state. It does seem like we’re in the middle of a rethinking of decades of Oregon’s land use policies. Is that a fair way to put it?
Tina Kotek: I was in the Legislature for 15 years. There have been these episodic revisitings of our land use system and we’ve had a lot of one-off conversations in the legislature to kind of take the pressure off when things weren’t working right.
Dave Miller: Urban reserves or different things, but has there been a time when a governor would have the kind of power that you might be handed to unilaterally say: “Yeah, move the line here to lure a chipmaker to build a plant here.” Has that ever been done?
Tina Kotek: Not to my knowledge. I know we had some super citing legislation under Governor Kitzhaber to make some things a little more expedited. That proposal is still developing. It’ll be curious to see where it lands.
Dave Miller: Would you like that power?
Tina Kotek: I think it’s very time-limited in my mind because we have this moment with the CHIPS Act to attract or allow current employers in the state to expand for advanced manufacturing semiconductors. If I were them, I would make sure it’s clear that it’s a limited authority. I would also like that magic wand for housing. So if they could give it to me for CHIPS for semiconductor and housing, I would be excited.
Dave Miller: I want to turn to behavioral health, meaning addiction and mental health together. We keep hearing about a statewide mental health crisis, but I feel like it’s actually worth getting into the specifics and what that phrase even means to you. What’s your diagnosis of what’s wrong right now?
Tina Kotek: First of all, there’s just too much need out there. Some of that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the isolation and the lack of access to services. But we had that challenge before the pandemic. We have very high numbers of need here in the Northwest and particularly in Oregon, and we don’t have a well-functioning system. Pre-pandemic, we have a lot of good people doing good things, but they’re not coordinated. For a while, we weren’t resourcing it well. Before I left as speaker, I made sure we added, I think, a half a billion dollars more into behavioral health, mental health and addiction services. Resources are in the system. And so my budget maintains that, and says it’s not enough to just have those resources, how are they being deployed? We have a workforce issue. We can’t find people to actually do the work. So what I know is, wherever you live in the state, my goal is to make sure if you need help, you know where to call, you know where to find it, you know how you can afford it, because that is what we need to do. When you’re ready for recovery, we got to make sure you have some place to go. If you have a mental illness and you need help, you have a place to go. It is hurting our communities and families and we just have to do a better job.
Dave Miller: How do we get from where we are right now to what you’ve just outlined, where if somebody needs help, they know who to call, how to do it and the help is available. How do we get there?
Tina Kotek: I’ve made it a priority in my budget. I know I’ve been saying that a lot, but it’s very important, given all the demands of the state, that we have a budget that is very focused on the key priorities. And one of them is mental health and addiction. So it’s maintaining what we have, and asking the providers to say: “Are you able to provide those services and if you’re not, what else do you need?” And so we are looking for additional resources to keep people from dying. I’ve got to be really up front. We have people who, because of fentanyl and other things, we have increases in overdose deaths. Let’s make sure you have access to Naloxone if you’re a provider. Those are very straightforward things we can do to keep people from dying.
Dave Miller: What about if you’re just a bar owner or a school teacher?
Tina Kotek: Well, let’s start with at least our first responders. I mean we have first responders that don’t have Naloxone and don’t know how to use it. So we have some work to do there. We have passed legislation allowing them to use it, but we haven’t provided it. One of my bills says if you leave a treatment facility because you were dealing with an opioid addiction, that you leave with Naloxone. We had that terrible story of that young man in Drain, Oregon, who got sober, he went to treatment, came home and then overdosed. That is sad. That is tragic. We’ve got to keep that from happening.
One of the things we also have to make sure is also happening is we have to focus on inpatient treatment. One of the challenges we’re having is when you need some inpatient care, whether for a medical detox for a certain number of days or longer treatment setting, we don’t literally have it in the state. So we’re focused on the physical capacity as well to make sure people have inpatient treatment. And not every community can have it, but there should be a regional approach to making sure those services are there. When I was down in Douglas County a couple weeks ago, their biggest issue was they have a lot of resources but they don’t have the workforce. And guess what? They don’t have places for people to live. So that’s where you go back to the housing issue. We have to support the workforce, pay them better, but also make sure they have a place to live.
Dave Miller: One of the issues that we’ve heard from many people over the last few years is that the different parts of what we now lump together as behavioral health care, that they’re way too siloed, in particular, mental health care and substance use disorder treatment. There’s a ton of overlap in the experiences of Oregonians, but the systems to help them are too separate. What could you do as governor to change that?
Tina Kotek: The first lady is a social worker, and she has experienced this first-hand, this siloing of resources and who pays for one and who does what. We have to improve that. Well, that’s one of the reasons we need a change in leadership at the Oregon Health Authority. That’s why we have a new director, interim director. And we have a new behavioral health director who started this week with a new deputy director. The state can’t solve all the problems, but if the state doesn’t have an intentional plan, which honestly we don’t, then we are at fault.
Dave Miller: So what’s the direction that you’ve given those leaders?
Tina Kotek: Well, as you’ve noted, it’s only been six weeks. So my goal has been making sure we have the right leadership there. I’ve also spoken with the heads of the coordinated care organizations. I had a meeting with them recently, those are the folks who serve our Oregon Health Plan members in Medicaid, they have to do more on making sure they are using their dollars for providing behavioral health care. Remember, we have insured a lot of people in this state, particularly under the Oregon Health Plan. So this isn’t a matter of whether you have insurance. Does your insurance plan under the Oregon Health Plan provide access to providers? I asked them that: “Where’s your network adequacy to provide care?” [It is] somewhat of a workforce issue, not totally. And if you’re living on the streets, you are an Oregon Health Plan member waiting to happen.
Dave Miller: What was the answer to that question?
Tina Kotek: They nodded and said: “Yeah, we need to do a better job.” And that is going to be a requirement for them to continue doing that work, for them to fully integrate behavioral health and provide access. And they know it. They know they’re not doing as well as they should.
Dave Miller: You mentioned that through Medicaid, the Oregon Health Plan in this state, many Oregonians are insured. But some number of them are likely to lose their insurance with the ending of the federal public health emergency. What if anything should be done for those people who will lose coverage under the Oregon Health Plan?
Tina Kotek: My goal is to make sure that the fewest number of people lose coverage. This is a transition period as the pandemic benefits are ending. We have to make sure people can continue to get care. So my number one priority in the Oregon Health Authority right now is re-determination- that is the process by which people are considered whether or not they still qualify for the Oregon Health Plan. We are working on making sure we’re staffed up, that we have better processes, that we can make sure people don’t get lost in that transition. We’ve also gotten approval from the federal government to provide some level of transitional coverage while we figure it out. We have a great partner in the federal government. Secretary Becerra, he’s the head of HHS, was here. We were talking about this. We have to keep people covered as best we can and I don’t want to have anyone fall through the cracks and we’re very focused on that right now.
Dave Miller: Earlier this week, we talked to two people who live in Boardman. They both have water with high levels of contamination from nitrates which can cause really serious illness or death. This has been going on in Oregon, in Morrow and Umatilla counties, for three decades. I want to play an excerpt from that conversation from one of our guests, Paulo Lopez.
Paulo Lopez (speaking through a Spanish language interpreter): So what I would like is to have the big leaders all come and stand, stand here for us, have let’s say, what you would call like the start of a fire, right? I mean this is a big emergency and they’re not taking it as it is. If there was a big fire that would be an emergency. And so is this. This is just a silent one. This is one that could be damaging us. It could be killing us in a silent way from the inside, and we won’t even know it. So what I want is the leaders to stand there, have big leadership and treat this as the emergency that it is.
Dave Miller: What’s your response?
Tina Kotek: Well, first of all, I want to thank the local activists who have really stood up for their community. Some of this contamination is, from my understanding, four times what is OK. I mean, it’s bad.
Dave Miller: In fact, that is the exact number for our two guests, including this man. Paulo Lopez, who you just heard. It’s four times what the EPA says is dangerous.
Tina Kotek: Is dangerous, not even safe, what is dangerous, it’s four times that level. It’s unacceptable. This is a public health crisis. And I was aware, as I was putting my budget together, that this needs attention. So in my budget there is additional money for well testing, and for understanding who does have contaminated wells. A lot of people, almost everybody is on a well there. They need to know. We need to first test everyone because we don’t have enough people tested right now. They need to get tested.
We need to make sure we can also find the funds to replace the systems. At some point you can’t do anything but replace them. There’s the immediate need of making sure people have drinking water. Every Oregonian should have safe, healthy drinking water. My team met with the community leaders just last week to talk this over and I’m looking forward to being out there to talk with them face to face directly. There’s a short term need. We have to get the wells tested and we have to talk about long term mitigation and holding the folks who polluted the water accountable to fix this.
Dave Miller: We also got an email from another Boardman resident, Mike Pearson. He also said the DEQ just gave the Port of Morrow a new permit to continue dumping 3.6 billion gallons of untreated wastewater every year until 2026. So what is the state doing not just to respond to this crisis but to prevent it from getting worse?
Tina Kotek: Well, I’ll have to check on what they’ve allowed them to do. My expectation is that it is continuing to meet the needs of businesses but in a safer way. But we also have long term contamination of the water table and that is a problem. And so we’re gonna be replacing a lot of wells, a lot of systems to help people. And people should feel comfortable boiling water, they shouldn’t have to boil water to eat in their house. And even that doesn’t really do anything. They need clean systems and I’m going to make sure that happens. We are going to appoint a project lead. So there is a lot of interagency confusion right now and communication. We’re going to work on that, and work with our federal partners to make sure we have the resources to solve the problem long term.
Dave Miller: One of the surprises, at least to the public, that you had to deal with was the scandal involving leaders at the OLCC. In case people didn’t hear it, leaders there had rare and expensive bottles of bourbon set aside for them. A number of those leaders have resigned and there’s now a criminal investigation that’s being undertaken. This has renewed calls from some Oregonians who say just get rid of the state-controlled system of selling liquor. Would you support getting rid of the OLCC?
Tina Kotek: No, I wouldn’t. And my message to Oregonians is: there’s new leadership. We have an interim, who I have a lot of confidence in. We’re gonna have a search for a new director. There’s a new chair of the commission, and we’re gonna make sure we can rebuild confidence. We have a high functioning state system to make sure people have access to the beverages they need, and it supports the local industry as well. There is nothing in the privatization of that system that I think will improve anything. And we have a system that works and we need to make sure people have confidence in the agency who’s running the system, and that’s what we’re doing with new leadership. I am appalled by what the leadership there was doing. They were abusing their power for personal gain.
Dave Miller: Sarah Iannarone, a former mayoral candidate who is now the head of the Street Trust, sent us this question: “Oregon was in the top 10 states for pedestrian fatalities in the latter half of 2022. Transportation is the second highest household cost after housing for many people. Yet our mobility isn’t much talked about in the governor’s agenda. What are Tina Kotek’s plans to get Oregonians moving safely and affordably?”
Tina Kotek: Thank you for the question, Sarah. In the 2017 transportation package we did, for the first time, have a statewide payroll tax to help local transit. Again, I haven’t been in office very long, but one of the questions I would have for the Department of Transportation and our local transit districts is: “How are they using that money effectively to improve lines and the pricing?” I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how TriMet is doing their business, and so having conversations with them will be important.
Dave Miller: What are the questions that you are most eager to ask them?
Tina Kotek: Well, are we really focusing on making it as easy as possible to move people, make that option of public transit a real option? As you know, I lived in and represented North and Northeast Portland for years, and it wasn’t easy to get on the bus and get where you need to go, and the Max was too slow, multiple stops, right? How do you really have a conversation about changing behavior? It has to be easier, has to be affordable, and TriMet plays a big role in the metro area, and I’m going to ask them what they need and see if we have to do something differently so they can do a better job serving the community.
Dave Miller: You obviously were very familiar with Oregon government before you took this job. But what has surprised you in your six or seven weeks as governor?
Tina Kotek: I am not so much surprised but excited about the opportunity to lead our state agencies to higher performance. We have a lot of wonderful state employees who are working really hard, who need to be supported. The pandemic was challenging for everybody. Like every employer, I’m in charge of making sure that everyone can perform and feel like they are making progress in their job. And I’ve been both inspired by the people who work here, but also see the challenges. Like every day, it’ll be like, why do we do this this way? Can we do that easier? When the answer is we’ve always done it that way. That is an opportunity for change.
Dave Miller: I’m curious about what you’ve seen that you would actually like to change.
Tina Kotek: So I think the answer to that is why do we do procurement the way that we do. Here’s an example: We ask people to apply a lot for money. We think the way to get to accountability and transparency is saying we have a pot of money to do X, we want you to all apply for it. We’ve never said, well maybe there are these folks that we could pre-approve and say these folks we know because we have pre-approved them can do all this work. And then we say we need these types of things done, who’s willing to do it? Instead, we let people come to us, particularly in housing, and say, “I want to build over here.” It’s like there’s nothing wrong with that particular project but maybe that community shouldn’t be the first community that gets new housing because the other one has none. We have to think about moving money in a way that’s a lot more strategic and intentional versus we’ll just let people apply for it and hand it out. We do a lot of that at the state and I think we have to change our thinking about directing how the dollars are actually spent.
Dave Miller: Can you help us understand your decision making process? How do you approach issues and how do you, yourself, come to a decision that you feel like you can stand by?
Tina Kotek: So I wake up every day thinking: “How do we make things better for Oregonians?” So when something comes before me, even if it seems not at all about serving Oregonians, it’s always been, well, what does this mean for the person who needs this service? Will this make things better for people? We can get very caught up in the processes of doing state government, that we forget who we’re trying to serve. So for me, it’s always: will this make things better? Will it serve the entire state? As you know, I’m planning to visit every county this year. I am and will be a governor for the entire state. So when someone says we should do this, I’m like, well, how does this play in Burns? How does this play in Pendleton? We have to think about what we do as it relates to the geography of the state and is it actually improving things on a day-to-day basis for people’s lives. That might sound really simple. But it’s so important when we’re doing this work because we can get very caught up in what we’re doing, and we forget that this is about serving individuals.
Dave Miller: Who are some of the last people that are in the room with you when you’re making big decisions? Who are the actual people who you turn to for guidance when you’re not sure how to proceed?
Tina Kotek: I think one of the hardest things about being governor is you can’t be in every detail. Speaker of the House, you could be a lot more into the details of the legislative process. As governor, it’s too big, and there are a lot of things you have to work on. So I have a great team. And what I say to them is, I often ask: “Well, who did you talk to? Tell me about the process that got you to this recommendation.” And if they haven’t, I was like: “You need to go back and talk to this person or that person to make sure we’re getting a full scope of what the recommendation is.” So asking who has been consulted as part of that, but for me it depends on the issue. I’ve worked in state government for a long time. I’ve been an advocate for many, many years.
I’ll give you a perfect example. On March 1st, the expanded SNAP benefits went away. Food stamps — SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We’ve had expanded benefits for almost three years because of the pandemic. So I called up Susanna Morgan, who is the executive director of the Oregon Food Bank, and I said: “OK, tell me what you’re seeing on the ground.” So she told me and said we need some emergency money now because we have to go buy food. So we wrote a letter saying we need emergency food to go out to the statewide food network because people are gonna have a rude awakening when they have less benefits through SNAP. I will call someone I know and say: “What’s going on, what’s happening out in the world?” That helps me inform, with my staff, what they’re hearing in their process, and we try to make clear decisions. The hardest thing about this job is you gotta make a clear decision and follow through because people need clarity.
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