Tina Kotek is Oregon’s speaker of the House and a representative serving District 44, North and Northeast Portland. Her district includes St. Johns, the Port of Portland, University of Portland and the Portland International Airport.
Street Roots had the chance to ask Kotek some questions this week about poverty and the 2017 legislative session, which began Feb. 1. Here are her written responses.
Israel Bayer: How are you maintaining your sanity given the political climate we find ourselves in?
Tina Kotek: I’m trying not to read too much national news. We’ve got such a long to-do list here in Oregon, I’ve been able to put almost all of my energy into the work here. That said, I’m ready and willing to respond when Oregonians are threatened by unjust policies coming out of D.C.
I.B.: The revenue forecasts for Oregon spell out clear pain for poor and working class Oregonians around our state — with a possible $1.8 billion deficit projected. Is there a silver lining somewhere on the horizon, or should we all be prepared for the worst?
T.K.: I need your readers to help us create the silver lining. Oregon is 50th in the nation for corporate taxation, and it is time to change that. Go to oregonlegislature.gov to find out who your state senator and state representative are, and let them know you’re concerned about the impact that budget cuts would have on poor and working-class Oregonians. With all of the increased awareness post-Measure 97, I think we have a window to create a better future for Oregon.
I.B.: What is the answer in the short-term to fix Oregon’s revenue shortfalls, and what are the long-term solutions?
T.K.: On Jan. 19, our chief budget writers released a framework for the current, two-year budget cycle that is within the bounds of current law revenues. This existing resources framework provides an opportunity to scrutinize agency budgets for savings, ensure we can meet our constitutional obligation to balance the budget, and encourage legislators and the public to wrestle with the difficult choices that our current resources create.
In the weeks ahead, we want to hear directly from the public about what their priorities are. The budget-writing committee is kicking off a seven-city, statewide town hall tour on Feb. 10. In order to make long-term, game-changing investments in our schools, health care and critical services, I believe that we need business tax reform. Whether you agree or disagree with that, we need Oregonians from around the state to share their priorities for the state budget now and going forward.
I.B.: Affordable-housing programs around Oregon have been underfunded for so long it feels like we’re never going to get to a place where we are actually scaling up our investments to prioritize meeting the needs of Oregonians facing a housing crisis. What I mean by that is it feels like every year in Salem, housing advocates and elected officials spend an enormous amount of energy to get what feels like peanuts compared to the investments needed to support local communities. Is this perception real? What will it take to convince our current governor and future governors to prioritize affordable housing the same way we prioritize education and transportation?
T.K.: First, I’ve got to say that Gov. Brown has been a champion for affordable housing. She helped lead the effort to create LIFT, an affordable-housing program that helps finance the construction of affordable housing for low-income households. The first set of funding was awarded in January, which will help build 12 projects that will provide 965 Oregon families with a place to call home.
Still, you’re right – we have to fight really hard, and often for several years in order to make any progress on affordable housing policy or investments. When it comes to policy changes, I think the road block has more to do with the influence of special interest groups rather than a lack of leadership. When it comes to investments, our road block is the longstanding, structural revenue problem in our state. Again, if you want the state to prioritize investments in emergency housing assistance, homeless shelters, preservation of affordable housing, foreclosure counseling, Legal Aid Services to help low-income Oregonians deal with housing-related issues, or construction of new affordable housing – please tell your legislators that you want them to support revenue solutions that would allow adequate, stable investments in these areas.
If we can figure out how to raise additional revenue, I will be asking for $250 million in additional state support to help local communities. This includes $100 million for LIFT to help finance the construction of more affordable housing for low-income households; $100 million for preservation for existing affordable units; and $50 million for emergency housing and shelter assistance.
I.B.: Talk to us about tenant rights and what the Oregon Legislature needs to do?
T.K.: I’m going to work very hard to help us build our way out of this crisis, but that solution will take time and that’s not enough for families who are struggling right now, every day. That’s why the Legislature will also need to discuss stronger protections for tenants in order to provide some immediate relief and stability for the 40 percent of Oregonians who are renters.
I will focus on three key tenant protections: lifting the statewide ban on rent control so local governments can pass rent stabilization ordinances designed to meet their community’s needs; implementing a one-year, statewide moratorium on rent increases; and ending “no cause” evictions to provide more predictability for renters.
I.B.: Talk to us about mortgage interest deduction. As I understand it, it allows homeowners who itemize their taxes to deduct from their taxable income the interest paid on mortgages up to $1 million. The deduction is expected to cost the state an estimated $1 billion in forgone income tax revenue for the 2017-19 budget. In some cases, Oregonians are receiving a housing subsidy on their second and third homes. Given that so many people are facing a housing crisis, what’s the answer?
T.K.: We are certainly in a crisis, so I believe every possible solution needs to be on the table. I would refer your readers to House Bill 2006, which reforms the mortgage interest deduction and allocates savings to affordable housing.
FURTHER READING: Housing advocates seek cap on Oregon's mortgage interest deduction
I.B.: What’s the answer to solving our mental health crisis in Oregon?
T.K.: First and foremost, we have to protect our current investments in mental health services and substance abuse treatment during this difficult budget environment. That includes keeping people on the Oregon Health Plan so they can access mental health care. I support increasing the integration of mental health services in the Oregon Health Plan, as well as House Bill 2675, which requires mental health integration in community health improvement plans. Finally, I support Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer’s work on requiring hospitals to improve their discharge procedures for individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis.
FURTHER READING: What's next for Oregon Health Plan?
I.B.: There’s clearly an urban-rural divide in America. Oregon is no different. How do we collectively bridge the urban-rural divide?
T.K.: Here in Oregon, there’s more that unites us than divides us – and I will try to focus on that. We all want better schools, affordable health care, a strong economy, and good paying jobs. We’ll debate the best way to achieve those goals, but we’ve got to keep communicating and figuring out ways to move the whole state forward together. We can’t succeed as a state if our rural communities are left behind, so I always keep that in mind.
I.B.: Is there legislation in the works to further protect undocumented immigrants in both sanctuary cities and communities throughout Oregon that may be more inclined to work with the federal government and draconian policies under the current administration?
T.K.: We will not allow our immigrant neighbors to be criminalized, nor will we allow families to be cruelly torn apart. We stand strong with Oregon’s immigrants and refugees and will use every tool at our disposal to protect them.
In fact, a few specific policies have already been introduced that will keep Oregon moving ahead on building an equitable state. Cover All Kids would extend the Oregon Health Plan to all children residing in Oregon, regardless of immigration status. The Reproductive Health Equity Act would improve access to reproductive care in several ways, including extending coverage to the 48,000 Oregonians who currently rely on emergency programs for their reproductive care.
I.B.: Anything I’m not asking?
T.K.: I will continue working to make Oregon a state that ensures equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity in our neighborhoods, our schools and our places of work. To that end, this session we will be working on the next steps to reduce profiling and improve equal justice under the law.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who supports Street Roots – including all of the vendors – for everything you’re doing to fight for social change.
Israel Bayer is the executive director of Street Roots. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @israelbayer.