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Brown's State of the State address focuses on priorities, challenges facing Oregonians in a post-pandemic world.

COURTESY PHOTO: SCREENSHOT - Gov. Kate Brown warned in her Jan. 21 State of the State address that the next state budget would have "hard choices" to deal with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.Kate Brown gave an unusual State of the State talk Thursday, Jan. 21, her next to last as Oregon's governor.

The virtual Jan. 21 address wasn't unusual. It's become commonplace in the 10 months since the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world and health protocols call for social distancing.

Brown herself noted that Thursday was exactly one year ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the United States, that she convened a state team to prepare for a potential outbreak. Brown issued her first executive orders on the pandemic March 8; most are still in effect.

What was unusual was that Brown invited four other speakers to join her virtually for 45 minutes to discuss her priorities of ending the pandemic and promoting vaccinations, recovering from the Labor Day wildfires, and advancing racial equity.

They were:

• Dr. Antwon Chavis, a pediatrician at Doernbecher Children's Hospital/Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who spoke about how the pandemic affected children and families.

• Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews of the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District, who directed efforts against the Holiday Farm fire even as her own home burned.

• Reyna Lopez of PCUN farmworkers union based in Woodburn and Paul Solomon of Sponsors Inc. of Eugene, both members of the governor's Racial Justice Council, which recommended steps toward racial equity that Brown included in her proposed 2021-23 budget.

Echoing the "Build Back Better" campaign theme of President Joe Biden, who took office the day before, Brown said it was not enough for Oregon to recover from the pandemic, the resulting economic downturn and the wildfires.

"We must recognize that going back to the 'way things were' will not move us forward," she said. "Every difficult turn of this past year has only proven this point, further exacerbating existing disparities. … The first step to creating opportunity is recognizing that racism is endemic to our systems, impacting every part of our culture and our economy. I am committed to ensuring that the world we build as we emerge from this last year is a more equitable one."

Brown has two years to go in her second term. She leaves office Jan. 9, 2023.

A different address

The Democratic chief executive passed up the traditional forum during an odd-numbered year: A personal appearance at a joint session of the Oregon Legislature in the Capitol in Salem. Leaders deemed it too risky to gather so many people in the House chamber for what could have been a superspreader event.

Instead of relying on her own words, or quoting others, Brown turned to four others to help her make her points.

Chavis said he has seen distance learning, based on computers, is not the best for children whose families lack broadband access, who have special needs, or who are in families where the primary household language is not English or whose parents are unfamiliar with public schools.

"The pandemic overall is disproportionately impacting families of color," he said. "I am worried because I feel we are at significant risk of really widening the racial disparity of educational outcomes."

Plews described her experience fighting the Holiday Farm fire east of Eugene, one of several wildfires that swept through Oregon.

"It was pretty clear we were not going to be able to stop the fire with the resources we had," she said. "The wind continued to present challenges because trees were starting to blow across the road and the fire was moving faster than we could actually drive our fire trucks.

"I was sure that my house was going to be fine because it was so far down the river, and I knew there were more resources coming. I really did not worry that much about my house for several days — until I found out it was gone."

Lopez, who grew up in northeast Salem, said racial justice has to be more than a rallying cry.

Brown's Racial Justice Council, which Lopez and Solomon sit on, came up with a range of recommendations that Brown incorporated in her proposed budget and other actions.

"It means meeting the moment by leaning into our values and ensuring that words aren't just words," she said. "They have to be actions people are counting on, and for those actions to be felt in every single corner of the state."

Budget priorities

Among Brown's priorities in her budget, which she unveiled Dec. 1:

• Proposed investments to expand access to affordable health care.

• Broadband expansion statewide to ensure that every single school across Oregon is connected to the internet. 

• Support to help communities create response plans and fire evacuation routes so that they are better equipped for future fire seasons. 

• More than $10 billion invested in K-12 schools and early education so that Oregon can close the opportunity gap and build an antiracist curriculum that is honest about the past.

• $250 million in affordable housing, homelessness prevention and rental assistance.

• Prioritizing criminal justice reform.

Brown acknowledged that her proposed two-year, $25.6 billion budget from the tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds — though up $2 billion from projected spending for the cycle ending June 30 — isn't enough to meet the state's needs in education, public health and health care, and other services. For example, the proposed state school fund is barely above the current $9 billion that Oregon's 197 districts share.

"It is a budget built on sacrifice and hard choices," she said. "While our state can deliver the core services that Oregonians expect us to, it doesn't go far enough to heal the pain of 2020."

Brown has been calling for more federal aid to state and local governments. Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery plan containing $350 billion in direct aid — Oregon's share is expected to top $3.5 billion — but Congress has yet to act. Democrats have tenuous majorities in both chambers, particularly in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.

State lawmakers have until June 30 to complete work on around 100 bills that make up the budget.

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