Why Kate Brown needs a smooth start as governor

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is sworn in as Oregon Governor by Oregon Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is sworn in as Oregon Governor by Oregon Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

SALEM, Ore. (The Tribune) — Kate Brown, with 17 years in the Oregon Legislature and six as its second-ranking official, brought a lot of experience with her as she became Oregon’s 38th governor Wednesday.

She is going to need all of it, given that the secretary of state was thrust into the job as a result of the resignation of John Kitzhaber — just 38 days into his fourth term.

“This one is particularly difficult because she is stepping in after the legislative session has already begun,” says former Gov. Barbara Roberts, who also was a lawmaker and secretary of state.

“Even though she is perfectly aware of that process, I think it’s a particularly hard place to step in with the budget already presented, everything is moving along, and she is coming in with only a few days’ preparation.”

Under normal circumstances, it is hard enough for an incoming governor to shape the two-year state budget, much of which is prepared by agencies and the outgoing governor through the Department of Administrative Services.

Even Kitzhaber, when he returned for a record third term in 2011, used the three full months allowed by law for an incoming governor to submit a budget.

The same is true for proposed legislation and policies, although many bills introduced in the governor’s name are actually on behalf of state agencies.

Big shifts unlikely

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, says Brown is likely to share many of the priorities that Kitzhaber and legislative leaders already have outlined.

“A lot of things are in the works, and I do not anticipate anything we are doing might now go off-course because of the change in the governor’s office,” Kotek told reporters Monday.

Many agency bills seek only small changes.

“Even on the bigger ones, such as his initiatives on education, we are going to take everything under consideration, because that is our job here,” Kotek says.

As for the two-year budget, the Legislature’s chief budget writers announced their own framework for spending decisions back on Jan. 14.

Although it supports some of Kitzhaber’s recommended spending, it also proposes more money than he did for the state school fund — which the 197 districts rely on for the lion’s share of operating costs — and aid to community colleges and universities.

“That (framework) in itself becomes a significant budget, and is more than a proposal,” says Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

Kitzhaber had sought about $800 million, about $120 million of it from shifts in funding formulas, for targeted education priorities such as early learning, third-grade reading, and high school and college completion.

Appointee status

The Senate also has pending 42 appointments Kitzhaber submitted on Feb. 9 for agencies, boards and commissions. Fifteen of them are reappointments.

“If there is a transition, the person coming in (Brown) will make a decision about those executive appointments, whether they would be hers or not,” Courtney said last week.

But the appointments are now in the hands of the Senate Rules Committee, which has the authority to decide what to do with them. No hearing has been scheduled yet.

The key appointment pending is that of Lynne Saxton of Portland to be director of the Oregon Health Authority, which has the largest budget of any state agency. She began her job Jan. 20, pending Senate confirmation.

She is the wife of Ron Saxton, a Portland lawyer who was the 2006 Republican nominee for governor. She has been on several state boards.

Kotek says she thinks Saxton should be confirmed.

“There was a lot of agreement she was a good selection,” Kotek says. “It would be helpful for her to get that appointment so that she would no longer be acting, but actually be the agency head. We are going into the budget season, and we need to have an agency head.”

The agency has been without a permanent director for more than a year, since Dr. Bruce Goldberg left in December 2013 to take over the health-insurance exchange known as Cover Oregon. He was forced to resign from that job about a year ago after multiple problems were disclosed.

By custom, most agency directors — excluding those chosen by boards and commissions, and those with fixed terms — submit resignations upon a change in governors. But Brown is not expected to make immediate changes. Upon his return as governor in 2011, Kitzhaber did replace one agency director (Housing) and a second (Revenue) chose to retire.

Republican objections

Even before Brown took office Wednesday, Republicans raised questions about some of her stances.

House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte says he is uncertain whether Brown has the same commitment as Kitzhaber did toward state aid for rural communities, which have lagged behind the Portland metropolitan area in recovering from the economic downturn.

McLane’s home county has the highest unemployment rate in Oregon at 10.5 percent.

Kitzhaber spent 14 years — eight of them as Senate president — in a Southern Oregon district, although he grew up in Eugene and spent many of his years as governor as a resident of Portland.

In contrast, Brown has been a Portland resident for three decades.

One political analyst says Brown would do well to pay attention to rural needs.

“The reason she will is because that is where the economic problems of the state are right now,” says Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University. “The Legislature has said we are going to focus on the rural Oregon economy. She has to be in on that conversation.”

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, raised a more specific concern about Brown’s proposal for automatic registration of voters based on their driver records.

“Let’s call it for what it is: This is a bill to elect more Democrats,” Girod says.

New voters can opt out within 21 days, and they can choose a party affiliation. But if they do not act, they will automatically be affiliated with no party. Girod says many of the estimated 400,000 new registrants are likely to vote for Democrats.

Republicans acknowledge privately that unlike 2013, they lack the votes this session to stop the bill’s passage. It was scheduled for a House vote Friday, Feb. 20.

A new political landscape

Brown will have less than two years to compile a record to run on in 2016, when voters will decide who will complete the remaining two years in Kitzhaber’s term.

However, she will have more time than two predecessors thrust into the governorship under similar circumstances.

John Hall of Portland had barely six months from October 1947, when a plane crash killed Gov. Earl Snell and the next two in succession, until the 1948 Republican primary, which Hall lost to Douglas McKay of Salem.

Elmo Smith of Ontario had nine months from the death of Gov. Paul Patterson — McKay’s successor — to the 1956 general election, which he lost to Democrat Robert Holmes of Astoria.

Brown already was looking toward a bid of her own in 2018, when Kitzhaber’s term would have ended. So did state Treasurer Ted Wheeler. Under Oregon’s term limits, both would have been biding their time after November 2016.

Wheeler, in his statement upon Kitzhaber’s resignation last week, says there will be time to speculate on politics:

“I have been around long enough to know that the resignation of Gov. Kitzhaber and the constitutional mandate for an election in 2016 will set off a flurry of speculation about what happens next. There will be a time for politics, but now is not that time. In the coming days, Oregonians should pull together to support Gov. Brown and her team in their efforts to bring stability to the governor’s office.”

Roberts says it’s now up to Brown to perform.

“I would hope that the respect she will earn makes it clear she belongs in that office, until she finishes whatever term she chooses to serve,” Roberts says. “I hope that is the way it happens — and I believe it will.”

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