Oregon Governor Kate Brown is up for re-election against a candidate backed by billionaire Phil Knight. I spoke with her about some of the issues that matter most to working people.
By Don McIntosh
If Bend Republican Knute Buehler had been Oregon’s governor instead of Democrat Kate Brown, none of the landmark labor-backed legislation of the last four legislative sessions would be law today. No minimum wage increase. No workers’ right to paid sick leave. No first-in-the-nation “fair scheduling” law. And no transportation infrastructure investment package. As state rep, Buehler voted against every one of those things. But as governor, Brown signed them into law.
Now Buehler is running a campaign fueled by magical thinking: He says he wants to catapult Oregon schools into the top 5 in the country, but he’s opposed every plan that would increase revenue to pay for it. He says he would make affordable housing a priority, but opposes the Metro bond measure that would build it. And he’s campaigning all over the state on a platform of slashing public employee compensation: He wants to take the 6 percent of payroll that most public employees now contribute to individual retirement accounts and use that to make up for investment losses on the employer side of the pension ledger.
Buehler didn’t ask for any union endorsements. And he didn’t get any. Brown, by contrast, is endorsed by virtually every Oregon union that makes endorsements. [The one exception is the Oregon Machinists Council, which pulled its endorsement during her 2016 campaign after she spoke in favor of the NAFTA-style Trans-Pacific Partnership; they might have considered backing her this year, but she didn’t ask.]
As a candidate, Brown is low key — not the sort to whip up audiences up at mass rallies. But union officers who have worked with her see big differences between her agenda and that of her opponent. That’s why they’re campaigning energetically for her reelection.
To talk about her record and her proposals on some of the issues that matter most to working people, I spoke with her by phone Oct. 2. [Editorial comments in brackets.]
You’ve been governor three and a half years. By my accounting, the thing that has improved the lives of working people the most has been the minimum wage increase. Can you tell the story of what you did to shape that legislation and get it passed?
Yes, as you might recall, our labor friends had filed a couple of ballot measures, and I was adamant that we come up with a legislative solution, as opposed to going to the ballot. So working with key staffers like Elana Pirtle-Guiney, we put together a couple of rooms — one of business and one of labor — to talk about what they wanted to achieve and what would be most useful in terms of their perspective. We met multiple times. We never put the room together, but as a result of that work, we were able to shape a proposal to recognize two economic regions. The Senate added a third economic region. And honestly we were the first state in the entire country to have a minimum wage bill reflect the different economic regions of the state. And the second piece is make consistent progress in terms of raising the minimum wage, and also do so in a way that, should the legislature need to tweak it or change it at any point, I think folks felt comfortable that the legislature could do that. So it provided the level of flexibility that an initiative might not have.
I’m sure it’s had a huge impact by now — the minimum wage has increased $2.75 an hour since then in Portland, less in the rural areas.
Two other pieces along working families lines: We were the fifth state in the nation, I think, to pass paid sick leave. And then most recently, we were the first state in the entire country to pass the “fair scheduling” bill. [Editor’s note: 2017’s Senate Bill 828 requires retail, hotel, and food service establishments with 500 or more employees worldwide to give employees two weeks’ notice of their work schedules, pay extra for last-minute employer-requested schedule changes, and separate shifts by at least 10 hours.]
I would say paid sick leave – my team worked on it. We were definitely pushing to get this done. Fair scheduling: We were certainly supportive of the concept. What I was most pleased about is that it was a consensus approach — business and labor at the table working out a solution that met the needs of both sides.
I live in Portland, and almost everywhere you go, there are people sleeping in the streets. Why are so many Oregonians homeless?
Because between 2000 and 2015 we under-built in terms of housing by 150,000 units. And number two, for whatever reason — and I have to tell you, I can’t find the answer — we have been a state that has not focused on sheltering people. And both of those need to change, and they are changing quickly. For example in February I fought for $5 million for shelter care to get families off the streets — distributed to Multnomah, Lane, Deschutes and other counties, so that they could provide shelter care. And secondly, we are working on the private sector side to both build the construction pipeline — legislation like 4144 — and partner with the private sector to build more workforce housing. [Ed: 2018’s HB 4144 allows people to get residential construction contractor licenses without meeting contractor training requirements or paying fees to the Construction Contractors Board, if they have experience in residential or small commercial construction.]
You have a housing plan, at this point, don’t you?
What are the highlights of that?
I would just say we’ve made consistent progress, but please be aware we are focused statewide. We cannot only focus on the metropolitan area. Just to give you an example: We have steadily increased the number of affordable units that are low income housing in the pipeline. 2016 was 3,500; 2017 was 4,000. This year we have 7,800 units under development, and they are spread out throughout the entire state. The focus is on getting children and families off the street, the chronically homeless, and our veterans. And we have been working to provide local jurisdictions with more tools, speed up permitting processes, build ADU’s [Ed.: accessory dwelling units], granny flats for example, much more quickly. But we’ve also worked to move forward on inclusionary zoning, which my opponent opposes. [Ed. 2016’s SB 1533 slightly loosened a state ban on “inclusionary zoning” — that’s where cities mandate that developers make a portion of new units affordable as a condition of getting building permits.] Moving forward, we are hoping to invest significantly more money. Because the best thing you can do to get people off the streets is build affordable units. We’ve invested roughly $300 million in affordable housing, homelessness prevention, and rental assistance in the last three years.
This is state money?
Yes. But some of it does go to local communities through EHA [Emergency Housing Assistance] and SHAP [State Homeless Assistance Program] funding. Moving forward, we want to invest $370 million in the next couple of years. We were able to increase the document recording fee in the 2018 [legislative] session.
You mentioned “tools for local jurisdictions.” Speaker Kotek has said that it’s time to lift the statewide ban on local jurisdictions enacting rent stabilization [rent control]. Would you sign that legislation?
If it got to my desk, yes. My preferred approach is tackling prohibiting people being evicted with no cause whatsoever, making sure that we are providing tenants with the technical assistance they need so they have the assistance, get questions answered, concerns addressed. And that we would be focused on providing relocation assistance for tenants who are being dislocated.
Relocation assistance from the state or from the landlords?
I think we’re open to what that looks like.
What have you done, and what do you propose to do, about the threat of catastrophic climate change?
Low carbon fuel standards I signed in 2015. The low-carbon fuel standard reduces the carbon intensity of your fuel. Number two, making sure that we do coal to clean, that was 2016. And in 2017 we passed a transportation package that in addition to creating over 16,000 jobs statewide, we’ve invested in public transit for the first time ever, statewide. Also EV [electric vehicle] rebates for low and moderate income Oregonians. Moving forward, I want to invest in our clean energy job legislation in a way that won’t hurt existing Oregon industries and will continue to grow clean green jobs.
That’s something you’re looking to do next year?
2019, yes. And then we’re working to make sure that our state agencies have the tools they need. So for example the Department of Forestry: making sure they have the resources to do the preventative maintenance and thinning on our public lands. So that ferocious, frequent, and really intense fires … that we prevent that level of forest fires. But they have to have additional resources and additional tools. The same is true at DEQ. The level of challenges that we are seeing are much greater and we’re going to need more tools for enforcement and data, research. And then I signed two executive orders, one to increase the amount of electric vehicles on the roads, and two, to reduce carbon emissions from both residential and commercial buildings over the next 10 to 12 years.
I’ll have to look into that. So Knute Buehler apparently has said he won’t sign any spending bills until there’s a PERS [Oregon Public Employee Retirement System] reform bill, and I wanted to know your perspective. Is Oregon done cutting public employee benefits, or do you see more work to be done on PERS?
Bluster and threats haven’t been very successful. [Laughs.] Bluster and threats aren’t a successful way to lead state government. It certainly hasn’t been successful for Donald Trump. So, do I think that we should increase expectations on our hard-working dedicated public servants that give their lives to educating our children, keeping us safe, and fighting fires? I believe our hard-working public servants that dedicate their lives to serving Oregonians deserve a safe, secure, and affordable retirement. Is there more work to be done on the PERS system? Absolutely. But I think there’s some things that we can do that don’t rip out the rug from underneath our hard-working public employees. And you know, they make a really tough choice. These folks make a decision to go into public service. Some of them could be making millions more in the private sector, getting large bonuses. Again, they deserve a public retirement system that enables them to lead a good life after retiring, and by that I mean not one living in poverty. You probably know that after the result of the changes in 2003, the average public employee retirement is now about $2,300 a month, meaning less than $30,000 a year. So the work that needs to be done— and this is so important and everybody misses this, so I’m going to be reading your article — if you really want to reduce employer rates, we have to pay down our unfunded actuarial liability. That’s the work I have been doing and working with Republicans and Democrats to do. Do I believe our public employees need to have more skin in the game? Absolutely. That’s why I worked to make sure that 98 percent of our state public employees are picking up their 6 percent [Ed.: The law that created PERS required a 6 percent employee contribution, but the state started paying that in the 1980s – instead of increasing wages. Now employees are mostly paying it once again.] But we also have to take into account generational inequities, and we have to make sure that we aren’t causing more harm to the system and not solving the problem in the short term. So I would just argue that my opponent’s proposal may cost more in the long term than it would solve the problem in the short term.
Why do you think [Nike billionaire] Phil Knight is giving gobs and gobs of cash to your opponent?
Because he’s a Republican.
Because Phil is a Republican?
Yes. And he wants a governor he can control. I don’t know. It is absolutely inappropriate that one person be able to buy a megaphone so loud that it drowns out all the other voices of the system. That’s why I have consistently supported campaign finance reform. I continue to do so. My opponent ran on campaign finance reform in 2012, and once he got elected, he said, “Oh, I don’t think I want to do that anymore.” He changed his mind.
What kind of campaign finance reform do you think Oregon could enact?
I think we can do a Constitutional Amendment, amending Article 2 Section 8, the elections clause, and allow the legislature or the people to enact reasonable limits. I think there’s a lot of models out there. I know in the Minnesota governor’s race, both candidates have raised about a million dollars.
That’s a lot less than Oregon, and it’s a bigger state.
Correct. I’m not sure about the numbers, that was from my mom, so don’t quote me on that. You should look at it. But I think Oregon spends more on legislative races than just about any other state in the country. Even if you go to Washington, I think they spend less. They have limits.
And it’s because of that screwy interpretation by the Oregon Supreme Court that says money is speech, in effect?
Well I’m not sure I would call it “screwy.” It’s because the Oregon Supreme Court has interpreted our free speech clause to consider money as speech, right? So I think that there is another way to tackle this, and I look forward to working with my allies to tackle it over the next couple of years.
But that’s why you’re suggesting a Constitutional amendment is the necessary fix.
Yes absolutely. The other is public financing, but I do think what drives you to public financing is limits.
You called a special legislative session to pass a tax cut for a certain kind of business, and I want to know: Will that lead to cuts in public services, and did the state of Oregon not need the money?
Do we need more resources on the table to keep up public services? Yes. It was a trade off and a balancing. No one honestly could give me a good reason to why our mom and pop businesses were left off the list with this particular tax break. And so for me it was a matter of tax fairness. I look forward to working with my colleagues and allies to continue to tackle a broader spectrum a tax fairness issues in the next session.
Do you see any prospect of a bigger overhaul that would look at the volatility and adequacy of Oregon’s tax structure?
I am looking at it differently. And I think how we funded the Oregon Health Plan and the transportation package are really great examples. Number one, we have a process in place that’s produced a product that Oregonians support. And that was continued funding for the Oregon Health Plan. It was thoughtful. It was dedicated. It was connected. And I think that’s the approach we need to take.
Do you think tuition at state colleges is too high, too low, or just right, and what might you do about it?
I think it’s too high. I hear from too many students that public university tuition is unaffordable. That’s why we created the Oregon Promise program to allow students who graduate with a C average in high school to go to community college for a mere $50 a semester. That’s why we expanded access to the Opportunity Grant, adding 16,000 students. And that’s why we fought for additional resources into higher ed so that tuition increases wouldn’t go above 5 percent. I think there’s more we can do, and I look forward to working with our students and our business community to invest in a public education system at the higher education level that we can all be proud of.