PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On day one as Oregon’s governor, Tina Kotek made good on her promise to declare a homeless state of emergency. With three executive orders under her belt and a legislature that claims it’s “ready to answer” her call, Kotek is ready to see action on the crises.
At the end of January, Kotek unveiled her $116 billion budget proposal for 2023-2025, $1 billion of which is dedicated to housing. She also proposed $117 million to build new affordable housing and $118 million to preserve affordable housing. Kotek additionally proposed $32 million to prioritize homeless, mental health services and eduation.
One of her executive orders establishes a housing production council to oversee building 36,000 housing units per year.
“I think we are making significant progress,” Kotek told KOIN 6 News. “When my budget was released, there are significant investments not only to address the immediate issues of our homeless neighbors but also make sure we can get on a path for more construction.”
The governor added, “It’s not just going to be about the money. It’s about changing how we do business, making sure that we can work together community to community to get more housing out there.”
Oregon is under-housed by 140,000 units, according to the Oregon Legislature in an announcement for a homeless and affordable housing package.
Kotek’s focus on homelessness comes after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposal to build sanctioned mass camps throughout the city. Kotek says she’s been in talks with the mayor and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson about the issue and emphasized she wants to invest in ideas that will work.
“I agree that there has to be a transition from living in a tent to being in an apartment, which means people are going to need to get stable,” Kotek said. “If we can get people better services, and get them safer so we can get them into housing, I will be supportive of that.”
While she’s waiting to see project details on the mayor’s proposal, she noted “we can’t invest money into things that aren’t going to work…it’s not about the money. It is about actually getting outcomes.”
“Right now,” she went on, “I’m waiting to see on whether they can actually produce these Safe Rest Villages that will actually get people into housing. One of the biggest issues that we heard on the campaign trail, that I hear every day, is we want our streets to be safer and we want our neighbors to be housed.”
Kotek says her declared homeless emergency will be under an “emergency management structure” with additional resources “so we can facilitate how the dollars on the ground are being spent and getting better outcomes.”
The governor’s budget proposal includes nearly $279 million for mental health and addiction treatment — featuring $50.2 million for the Oregon State Hospital and $195.7 million for behavioral health centers.
“My goal and my commitment is to be a governor for the entire state and that means that when you need the basics — whether it’s housing, or behavioral health or good schools — you will find them no matter what ZIP code you’re in,” Kotek said.
Kotek says Oregon has a lot of people suffering who do not have access to needed mental health care. Her focus is on bolstering the behavioral health care workforce, working to retain those in the field and recruit others.
“My budget asks are about breaking down the barriers to providing better care and making sure we can stop that pipeline from jail to the state hospital,” Kotek said.
On top of the state’s homeless and affordable housing crises, Kotek also faces several leadership shake-ups in state agencies such as the Oregon Health Authority.
OHA Director Patrick Allen stepped down the day Kotek was sworn in. She says while Allen and other OHA staff “stepped up” during the pandemic, she wants to see more focus on behavioral health.
“My biggest concern was, we were not making enough progress on mental health and addiction, was not satisfied with the leadership there — not only with Pat Allen but also Steve Allen — both of them have moved on,” Kotek said. “I want to make sure, no matter where you live in the state, you have access to the care you need and we needed a change in leadership to make sure that was happening on the behavioral side.”
OHA wasn’t alone. The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission has also undergone a change in leadership after the agency came under fire in recent weeks after an investigation found top OLCC officials directed high-end bourbon to themselves.
OLCC Director Steve Marks stepped down at the governor’s request and she has called for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to investigate.
“I was livid. It is not acceptable for people to use their positions of power to get special deals,” Kotek said. The commission followed Kotek’s recommendation to appoint former Department of Corrections Inspector General Craig Prins as the new interim director and Marvin Révoal as the commission chair.
“People have to have the highest integrity when they do their work and work for the State of Oregon,” Kotek said. “When people who have special privileges say ‘And we’re going to keep a little stash for ourselves,’ that’s just wrong.”
Kotek also stated she wants to represent all Oregonians. This comes amid calls from Oregonians behind the Greater Idaho Movement who say they don’t feel heard in Oregon politics.
Kotek said she has spoken to Idaho Governor Brad Little as Idaho representatives recently agreed to talk about the Greater Idaho concept.
“I think there are a lot of Oregonians who are frustrated and don’t feel heard. That, I think, is what the movement is about,” Kotek said.
Kotek added that she will visit every Oregon county in her first year as governor and wants to hear her constituents’ concerns in hopes of working through issues together as a state.
“I want to be partners across the border. We have things that we will solve together and I’m hoping through dialogue and conversation, we can address frustrations and concerns and move forward as one state,” Kotek said.
She added “I think it’s fair to say that people feel left behind and people feel that in urban areas, in suburban areas and our rural areas. I think the pandemic has really laid bare that people don’t have what they need. They feel that people aren’t listening.”
“I want to reset this relationship with rural Oregonians so that they feel heard, that they are part of the decision-making and making sure their communities can be successful. It’s not just about Portland. It’s about the entire state being successful,” Kotek said.
Now, as the Oregon Legislature gears up to address the issues Oregon faces under Kotek’s leadership, the governor says she’s encouraging lawmakers to be realistic and focused on problem solving.
“We don’t need a bunch of new programs. We need the programs we have to work. We need to support the agencies to do that work. I’m tired about talking about problems, I just want to do things,” Kotek said.
On Monday, Kotek is set to talk to the legislature about her budget and addressing homelessness across Oregon.
“We don’t have time to waste. We need that money to move out the door and I’m hoping they will have that done by the middle of March.”