In her final speaking engagement before being sworn in as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) told a gathering in Lake Oswego last week that the 2019 legislative session provides Democrats with the opportunity to pass ambitious progressive reforms.
"The economy is sound, we have a lot of energy and we have a lot of progressive votes that can help us do good things," Kotek said.
She talked about a wide variety of issues at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Willamette Women Democrats, including the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) and workforce harassment at the Capitol. But most of her comments focused on her priorities for the legislative session: education, health care, housing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"There is a strong commitment from the governor (Kate Brown), the Senate president (Peter Courtney) and I to prioritize these four things," Kotek said, and a Democratic supermajority in both houses should help clear the way.
Kotek said education funding is the No. 1 priority. She said the Joint Committee on Student Success, which surveyed districts across the state, will soon issue a report about education in Oregon that will inform potential legislation around everything from early childhood education to student access to mental health services.
"We need to have sustainable revenue to make additional investments in our Pre-K through 12th-grade system. I don't think anyone can say our outcomes are where they want them to be," she said. "It's not all about the money, but we know additional investment in schools is going to make the difference for our students."
Kotek also said one of the first bills that will be introduced at the legislative session will be a tax bill to address the Oregon Health Plan's $830 million budget deficit.
"The bulk of the folks who are served by Medicaid are children, seniors, people with disabilities, low-income households, rural households," she said. "We need to fund the Medicaid program."
Kotek said implementing a carbon pricing program that would incentivise businesses to pollute less would also be introduced.
"We are not meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals in this state. If anyone is reading the climate reports, I'm sure you are as scared as I am," she said. "We are running out of time to reduce emissions, not only in Oregon but around the country and the entire world."
Kotek said lawmakers will also focus on fostering housing choice and affordability. She said a construction lag during the Great Recession, combined with an influx of new Oregonians, created a housing crisis in the state. To quell the crisis, she said the Legislature will write bills to allow more density (which could include outlawing single-family zoning), ban no-cause evictions, cap rent increases and provide resources so that local communities can prevent homelessness and develop housing.
"We need more density. We need more choice in our residential areas," Kotek said. "We also know renters are being gouged in a very unstable market place."
Kotek said she would endorse diverting Oregon's 2019 income tax kicker rebate (approximately $700 million-$800 million) to PERS, which is severely underfunded, or to the state's rainy day fund on a one-time basis. However, she said the idea would need the approval of two-thirds of members in both the House and Senate.
And in front of a room of mostly women, Kotek addressed the recent Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries report that showed lawmakers had grossly mishandled accusations of sexual harassment. The Legislature would implement policies to address the issue, she said.
"We're going to make sure everyone who goes into the Capitol can feel safe and welcome," Kotek said, "so they can participate in the democratic process."
Kotek told attendees not to "hide under the sheets" when they read news coming out of Washington, D.C., and that she wakes up in the morning with a "glass half full" attitude, motivated to implement her policy agenda.
"We will be that beacon of hope and progressive policy," she said, "so we can be a leader for the nation on things that really matter for people."
AN UPDATE FROM WAGNER
State Sen. Rob Wagner was among those in attendance at Rep. Tina Kotek's speech in Lake Oswego last week, and he took a few minutes to update The Review on his responsibilities and agenda in the upcoming legislative session.
Wagner, who is also a member of the Lake Oswego School Board, was appointed to the Joint Ways and Means Committee and will serve as co-chair of its General Government Subcommittee, where he will assess 14 state agency budgets. He said finding a way to pay back PERS while also funding education and health care will not be easy, though he said increasing cigarette taxes could help.
"Anyone who tells you there's a magic bullet or an easy way out of this conversation, there isn't," he said. "It's really about belt tightening; it's about making tough decisions; it's about creative approaches."
Wagner was also appointed to the Senate Education Committee and said he will work on reforms to make it easier for students' credits to transfer between schools and bolster higher education affordability and student support.
"I think Oregon has a way to go to look at making sure students actually have access to affordable, quality higher education where they can move through the community college space and where those credits transfer," he said.
Wagner will also serve on a taskforce for student safety that will try to boost funding for Safe Oregon — a tool for reporting school safety threats — and is sponsoring a bill that would require school districts to institute suicide prevention policies.
"It's really hard for a student to learn if they're not safe, if they're not safe at home or if they are facing their own trauma," Wagner said.
Wagner said he will sponsor legislation to make Holocaust and genocide education mandatory at schools across the state. And he has already joined with state Rep. Andrea Salinas in sponsoring sweeping gun-reform legislation that would, among other things, require permits for all gunowners, require people to undergo background checks before purchasing or sharing ammunition, limit ammunition purchases to 20 rounds within a 30-day period, ban magazines that hold more than five rounds of ammunition and require people to securely store their guns and report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement within 24 hours.
Senate Bill 501 fulfills a promise Wagner and Salinas made last year after a group of Lake Oswego high school students presented them with a 10-point plan to curb gun violence and increase student safety.
— Corey Buchanan