By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Gov. Kate Brown’s final State of the State address on Thursday served largely as a victory lap, while she challenged legislators to approve her plans to spend $700 million on job training, housing and child care.
As she did last year, Brown gave her 30-minute speech virtually from her office instead of standing before a joint session of the Legislature because of the risk of Covid transmission. A steady stream of critical comments, mostly about Covid restrictions, were posted as she appeared on Youtube.
“In my last year as governor, I view every day, every moment, as one more opportunity to focus on the big and bold work we still have to do,” Brown said.
For Brown, that work takes the form of her last big spending plans – a $200 million jobs package that legislators are skeptical of, $100 million for child care subsidies and $400 million to build more affordable housing.
The state’s economy is strong, she said, and her plan will keep it that way. Oregon legislators will get a clearer picture when state economists release their latest forecast next week. As of now, the state is expected to have about $2.5 billion above the amount budgeted for the 2021-2023 period.
But many Oregonians are struggling to find high-paying careers and employers are struggling to find workers, Brown said. That’s particularly acute among historically disadvantaged groups such as people of color, she said.
Brown’s three-pronged jobs plan would spend roughly $92 million on existing programs that train Oregonians for new jobs, with the remainder of the money split among community groups and direct financial aid to individuals, such as help paying tuition. Lawmakers have questioned whether the plan will do enough to address immediate staff shortages.
She also urged lawmakers to approve her $400 million plan to build more affordable houses.
“You can see the housing crisis everywhere in Oregon — from Coos Bay to Ontario and back again,” Brown said. “Since 2000, single-family home prices have tripled in Portland. Rent in Portland has gone up 25% in the last five years alone. But this is not just a Portland issue.”
Brown said she was working with the Legislature on “significant investments in behavioral health,” but did not elaborate.
As comments from anti-vaccine and anti-mandate listeners rolled in, Brown defended her approach to the Covid pandemic, saying the state fared better than most.
“If our response to Covid matched that of the average state, more than 4,000 Oregonians wouldn’t be with us today,” she said. The state put the toll of Covid-related deaths at 6,163.
She said it was time to move beyond Covid and shift from responding to crises to looking at long-term spending, like her jobs program, that will prepare Oregon for future challenges.
“As I enter my last year as governor, I still have moments where it feels surreal to have sat in this office and guided our state through a global pandemic,” said Brown, who is term-limited. “While Covid-19 may have defined these times, it doesn’t need to define our lives.”
Brown referred several times to her commitment to equity, saying that principle guided her administration’s response to Covid, the economy and climate change.
She also sought to define her legacy as governor, reminding viewers that she presided over an increase in graduation rates, expanded access to reproductive health and creation of the state’s largest transportation spending package, a 10-year, $5.3 billion plan that paid to widen Interstate 5, repair or rebuild roads and bridges around the state and expand transit, especially in the Portland area.
Oregon’s high school graduation rate, at 80.6% in the 2020-21 school year, still lags the national average. It also fell slightly since the 2019-20 academic year. But it increased about 8% since 2013-14, the academic year before Brown took office.
More recently, Brown said, she met with representatives of the timber and environmental industries to hash out a compromise on forest management. She remembered that at 10:30 on a Friday night, the last day of negotiating, she doubted whether they’d reach an agreement – but one came through in the early hours of the morning.
“It is the perfect example of the ‘Oregon Way’ — coming together and finding common ground. Innovating to build resilience,” she said. “All in service to the state we love. Over and over, I’ve seen the power of collaboration and innovation during my time as governor.”
In response, Republican leaders in the state Legislature criticized Brown for not addressing Oregonians’ perceptions of safety. Public safety is shaping up to be a major issue in this year’s elections, exacerbated by 2020 protests in Portland.
“The Governor’s workforce package won’t do anything for our economy if people don’t feel safe to work or do business here,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend and the leader of the Senate GOP. “Oregonians are desperate for real leadership and solutions on public safety.”
His counterpart in the House, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, said safer communities should be a priority during the legislative session. She referred to Brown’s recent actions commuting the life sentences of people who committed crimes as minors, including some who killed others.
“Any proposals from the Governor that misses this crucial element does not fully serve Oregonians,” she said. “Instead, we’ve seen the Governor commute the sentences of killers, Democrats have proposed legislation to retry potentially thousands of cases of violent criminals, law enforcement budgets are lower than ever, and current law makes it harder for police to stop riots. Oregonians deserve safer neighborhoods. House Republicans demand better.”
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