By CLAIRE RUSH
Associated Press/Report for America
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s newly sworn-in Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek said Monday at her inauguration that her first order of business will be tackling homelessness, as she unveiled several measures intended to address one of the state’s most pressing issues.
In her inaugural address at the state Capitol in Salem, Kotek said she will declare a homeless state of emergency and sign an executive order to increase housing construction on her first full day in office. She also proposed a $130 million emergency investment to help unsheltered people move off the streets.
“Imagine an Oregon where no one has to live in a tent on the sidewalk,” Kotek said. “That’s an Oregon worth fighting for, and today is a new beginning.”
“Our state’s response must meet the urgency of the humanitarian crisis we are facing,” she added.
Oregon has struggled for years to address a housing shortage and interwoven homelessness, addiction and mental health crises. Its homeless population has increased by more than 22% since 2020, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also has the highest drug addiction rate of any state and ranks last in access to mental health treatment, according to federal data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Kotek also pledged to unite Oregonians after a bitterly fought gubernatorial race — the tightest in a decade — in which Republicans sought to break the Democrats’ dominance of the state. She said she plans to visit every county in Oregon during her first year in office.
“Governing is about serving Oregonians — all Oregonians,” she said, adding that her “personal promise” will be to “strengthen connections across the state.”
In a letter to Kotek, Oregon’s House Republican caucus congratulated her and said it hoped the governor’s office and the Legislature “can co-exist for the benefit of all Oregonians.”
“As exemplified by a trying campaign for both the Executive and Legislative branches, it is clear that the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans provides no benefit to the constituents that elected us,” the letter said.
Kotek said her first executive order will set a housing construction target of 36,000 new homes per year, describing the figure as an 80% increase over recent construction trends.
Her proposed $130 million emergency investment will aim to help unsheltered people move off the streets within a year. Kotek asked lawmakers to act with urgency and said she hopes to build on the investment with a larger, more comprehensive housing and homelessness package during the legislative session.
The measures come on the heels of a significant spending package passed by Oregon lawmakers last year that included $400 million to address homelessness and housing.
Kotek is replacing term-limited Democrat Kate Brown, whose strict coronavirus pandemic measures made her a polarizing figure. The two worked together for years as respective speaker and governor, and they have similar profiles as progressives and open members of the LGBTQ community. But Kotek sought to distance herself from Brown — and her low approval ratings — toward the end of the gubernatorial campaign, casting her predecessor as ineffective on homelessness.
Kotek won Oregon’s three-way race for governor in November after fending off a stiff challenge from a fellow former state representative, Republican Christine Drazan, defeating her by less than four percentage points.
Kotek was a state representative from 2006 until 2022, when she resigned to run for governor. During her time in the Legislature, she became the longest-serving speaker in Oregon history after nine years in the role and cemented her status as a key player in state politics, earning a reputation for cutting deals and muscling bills through the state House.
As speaker, Kotek spearheaded and passed liberal agendas made possible by Democratic supermajorities, including the nation’s first statewide rent control law. She also helped push through gun storage laws, criminal justice reform and paid family leave, among other measures.
Lawmakers also were sworn in on Monday. Democrats still control both chambers of the Legislature, but they lost their three-fifths supermajority in November’s election.
Kotek joins Maura Healey of Massachusetts as the first openly lesbian elected governors in the U.S.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter.