Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - House Speaker Tina Kotek, a North Portland Democrat, says shell have more clout in the 2015 session, now that she has more experience running the chamber. Having steered the Oregon House of Representatives through one two-year cycle, Rep. Tina Kotek of Portland is back for another term as its speaker.

She returns with a larger Democratic majority, a gain of one on Nov. 4 for a total of 35. But she also generated enough goodwill during her current tenure that the 25 Republicans chose not to offer their own candidate for speaker on the opening day of the session Jan. 12. It was a rare, but not unprecedented gesture by the minority party.

The 2015 session starts its 160-day run Feb. 2.

Even though Kotek is completing a decade in the House, and was a human services lobbyist for nearly a decade beforehand, she still has the least experience of the three principal actors in this legislative session. Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem, the Legislature’s senior member at 30 years, is in his 13th year as Senate president. Democrat John Kitzhaber of Portland, who was Senate president for eight of his 14 years in the Legislature, is in his 13th year as governor.

“But I am not the new kid on the block anymore, and I think that helps,” Kotek said at an editorial board meeting with the Portland Tribune. “Knowing that this is my second time around, I think I may have more parity with a Senate president who has been there forever and a governor in his fourth term.”

Kotek will be the first two-term speaker in a decade, and the first Democrat to repeat since Vera Katz’s three-term run in the 1980s.

As speaker, Kotek decides who sits on the committees that do most of the House’s work on bills and budgets, who will lead them, which bills they are assigned — and how legislation flows through the chamber.

She will need to draw on that experience as the House deals with the state budget and transportation projects — financing for the latter will require some Republican support — as well as a potential minimum-wage increase, paid sick-leave requirement, and other issues likely to split the parties.

“On most issues, we have a lot of bipartisan support, and I hope we can continue that,” she says. “Other issues stem from my belief that when you work hard, you should actually be able to move ahead.”

Although Kotek is the first lesbian in the nation to lead a state legislative chamber, she has not defined herself solely on issues affecting sexual minorities. She has emphasized education, health care, housing and other economic issues during her years working in Salem.

“Not everyone is finding success in our economic recovery,” she said after the Nov. 4 election.

A 2011 news account describes her as combining “laser-focused discipline with strong political instincts.”

Previous work

Kotek was elected to the District 44 seat in 2006, after working as public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank and policy director for Children First for Oregon — and failing in a bid for the House from an adjoining district two years earlier.

District 44 covers North Portland and part of Northeast Portland.

“She had enough experience in this building to know how things worked and who is effective around here,” says Rep. Brian Clem of Salem, also a member of the 2006 class of eight that enabled Democrats to become the majority party in the House for the first time in 16 years.

In her first term, Kotek led the state effort to establish domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, seven years before a federal judge ruled they were entitled to full marriage rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In her second and third terms, she led the Legislature’s human services budget subcommittee, where she worked through consolidation of early-childhood programs under a single Early Learning Council.

Paired on the subcommittee in 2011 with then-Rep. Tim Freeman of Roseburg — because Republicans shared power with Democrats in an evenly split House — she helped devise the legislative framework that made possible the launching of coordinated-care organizations to deliver health services to low-income Oregonians. Sixteen such organizations have improved care to Oregon Health Plan recipients and restrained cost increases.

Hours after the 2011 session ended, Democrats ousted Dave Hunt of Gladstone and made Kotek their leader. After Democrats gained four seats in 2012 to regain a majority, Kotek became speaker.

She was the fifth woman in that position in Oregon.

Despite an often-divided Democratic caucus, Kotek helped steer approval of the 2013 special-session “grand bargain” that raised some taxes and cut others, and pared public pension cost-of-living increases while boosting spending on schools and social services.

While still less than Kotek wanted, the state school fund that supports the lion’s share of public school operating costs went up by about $1 billion this cycle over the previous two-year cycle.

Uniting issues

Kotek praised the framework devised by the Legislature’s chief budget writers for the next two-year spending plan, which aims to boost the state school fund from the $6.9 billion proposed by Kitzhaber to $7.24 billion.

“We thought it was important to have a budget that provided stability,” she says, after state aid dropped in 2011 and 2012 because of the economic downturn and a loss of one-time federal stimulus funds.

The plan does so by scaling back Kitzhaber’s targeted spending on other education priorities, such as early learning, and human services and public safety, “although those are still good budgets,” she says.

But some school districts want even more, and Kotek says it will be difficult for lawmakers to do so, although they are in line with others to get a share of up to $150 million more if higher tax collections permit it.

“I think this budget does not get us there for the really game-changing investments we can make, such as lengthening the number of school days or reducing class sizes,” she says.

A coalition of local governments, business interests and transportation users is shopping around for a combination of higher fuel taxes, vehicle and driver fees, and lottery-backed bonds for system improvements.

“We are working hard to put a package together, we are in the beginning stages, and it’s going to take most of the session to do that,” says Kotek, who notes that two Democrats and two Republicans from the House are involved in the process.

“For me, a transportation package is about getting projects in the pipeline for the next five or six years, putting people to work right away, maintaining the infrastructure we have and expanding it.”

Dividing issues

But Kotek acknowledges that such issues as raising Oregon’s minimum wage — already the nation’s second highest at $9.25 per hour — and requiring paid sick leave will divide not only Democrats from Republicans, but also labor from business interests.

“What we heard from voters was that they wanted us to take up some of these issues that could be potentially contentious, so we feel obligated to go and have that discussion,” she says.

“If we do not challenge ourselves to have a good debate, then we are not doing our job.”

One bill would raise the minimum wage in stages to $15 per hour by 2018. Another would raise it to $12.20 by 2017, and then link future increases with the Consumer Price Index, as is done now under a measure that voters approved in 2002.

Kotek says she isn’t wedded to a number.

“But I’d like to see us raise it over the next couple of years,” she says. “That will help more people have money in their pockets, need less (government) help, and have the dignity of working above the federal poverty line. It’s not simple, but I think it’s necessary.”

While a statewide requirement for paid sick leave for employees failed to advance past a House committee in 2013, Portland has had such an ordinance for more than a year, and Eugene’s will take effect July 1.

Without a statewide standard, Kotek says, “you’ll have a patchwork of cities with differing leave policies, and that is not helpful.”

Portland specifics

Kotek has been a long-time advocate of ways for the state to encourage lower-cost housing, particularly in a city whose median home price ranks ninth highest among the nation’s top 50 cities, according to U.S. Census data compiled by Portland’s city economist.

“People are spending way too much of their incomes on housing,” she says, which leaves them less for food and medical care.

She says lawmakers will look at the details of Kitzhaber’s proposal to issue $100 million in bonds aimed at reducing homelessness for families.

Kotek says she has questions about the specific bonds proposed.

“But it’s the right goal, and bonding may be a pathway to do that,” she says.

She acknowledges that housing is affected more by city and county policies, but says lawmakers should remove a 1999 pre-emption on “inclusionary zoning,” which requires developers to build a share of housing considered “affordable” as part of their projects.

“I do not know if communities will take up that tool, but I think we should give it to them,” she says. The city of Portland is likely to be one of the cities that adopts inclusionary zoning if the Legislature removes the ban on local measures.

Kotek also plans a package of bills aimed at racial profiling, a practice used to identify criminal suspects. Among the proposals are police collection of data on traffic stops — this has been done on an agency-by-agency basis — and designating the state attorney general as the official to receive complaints.

“This is not an issue particular to Portland, but it highlights that police accountability in Portland is a huge issue,” Kotek says.

Kotek also is keeping an eye on “lottery delis” that nominally sell food and cigarettes, but reap a substantial share of their money from Oregon Lottery games. Residents of Hayden Island, which is in her district, have complained those establishments violate a Lottery Commission rule against lottery games being their “dominant use,” and have asked the secretary of state to audit them.

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