by Helen Caswell

With Kate Brown taking on four contenders in the May primary to represent the Democratic party at the General election in November, voters across the state are assessing her first 13 months as Oregon’s governor. 

Evaluations of Brown’s performance require some care since she was not elected to office, but stepped in when former governor John Kitzhaber resigned last spring. Also, Democratic majorities in both House and Senate have strongly influenced the bills that were sent to her.

Still, many constituents have seen enough to form opinions. Arguably the most satisfied are Oregonians who champion labor, voting rights and women’s reproductive rights – and the least satisfied are Republicans and environmentalists. 

Labor/education

Brown has signed several bills designed to level the playing field in work and education. Perhaps the most controversial and memorable was the tiered increase of state minimum wage, signed into law just weeks ago. The legislation has Portland employees receiving $14.75 by the year 2020, mid-sized counties like Marion getting a boost to $13.25 and rural counties such as Coos or Umitilla increasing to $12.50 in the same time frame. It’s the first gradated minimum wage plan for any state in the nation.

Oregon Majority Leader, Rep. Jennifer Williamson says that after Brown’s entry into governorship, she “… immediately got to work picking up the pieces and leading the state with a vision of the future where everyone is able to thrive. Her leadership on the minimum wage conversation showed that she’s eager to hear input from all sides, work toward a compromise, and then build support for policies that improve the state.”

It became mandatory for all Oregon employers with 10 or more employees to pay for sick leave when Brown signed the Oregon Paid Sick Leave Act in June 2015. The bill makes Oregon the fourth state in the nation to have such a law.

“Governor Kate Brown has been a champion for Oregonians who are working to build a better life for their families and their communities,” says Rob Sisk, SEIU 503 President. “By signing the Fair Shot For All agenda into law, Gov. Brown has helped us raise the wage, make paid sick leave mandatory, give all working Oregonians the chance for a secure retirement and pass other important pieces of legislation that ensure more Oregonians have a fair shot to succeed.”

Yet another signature that will impact the workplace is the “ban the box” bill, HB3025 signed last June. The new law, meant to support work prospects for Americans who have had criminal convictions, will make it illegal for businesses to require information on an applicant’s criminal history on job applications.

Attendance at Oregon community college became nearly free when Brown signed legislation to limit tuition to only $50 per term. The bill targets students who want to begin college within six months of completing high school and will impact thousands of Oregon youth. “The Oregon Promise” bill signed last July provides $10 million for high school graduates who want to attend one of the state’s 17 community colleges.

Motor – voter act

One of Brown’s first actions in office was to sign an automatic voter registration bill, the first in the nation. The bill registers Oregonians as a nonaffiliated voters when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses. The bill, which went into effect in January, added 15,000 new voters to the rolls in the first 40 days.

Women’s reproductive health

Summer 2015 saw Brown signing bills that expanded women’s access to birth control pills. The first required health insurers to cover – and supply – a full year’s worth of birth control for Oregon women. The second alows women to obtain birth control pills and hormonal patches directly from a pharmacist rather than having to visit a doctor. These actions have drawn acclaim from reproductive rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Not so happy? Many Republicans

Republicans dissatisfied with the terms under which former governor John Kitzhaber left office, charge that his administration was nontransparent and that Brown’s has not improved in this area.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R – John Day) says, “Senate Republicans are concerned about several patterns that emerged during Governor Brown’s first year in office. Most concerning is the lack of transparency and unwillingness to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to strengthening ethics and restoring accountability to Oregon government. Her office has repeatedly stymied public records requests and made headlines for ‘muzzling’ Public Utility Commissioners during negotiations over the new renewable energy mandate.”

Republicans are also unhappy with labor-centric legislation. Many question Brown’s motivations for signing these bills. Ferrioli says he’s concerned with “Governor Brown’s close relationships with labor unions who are funding her campaign. Her biggest political contribution to date came from the national branch of AFSCME, which represents public employees in Oregon, following her approval of a 5% pay raise for those same state employees – far beyond what the legislature approved in 2015.”

Since Brown became governor, ‘gun safety’ legislation has advanced dramatically, and usually along party line votes. In 2015, SB941 mandated background checks for private gun transactions and this February Brown signed into law HB4147, which will increase the length of time for law enforcement to complete background checks, lengthening the waiting time for some buyers.

Environmentalists

Although Brown raised environmentalists’ hopes early when she signed SB 324, which extended the state’s clean fuels program, many were disappointed, says Arran Robertson of Oregon Wild, when Brown “almost immediately tried to renegotiate with legislators for its repeal in exchange for a transportation package.”

Other significant points of action – or more accurately, inaction – have left environmentalists questioning the governor’s ‘green’ credentials.

One of the most egregious is the way the Brown administration has done nothing to protect Oregon forests and communities from the abuses allowed by the Department of Forestry and the Forest Practices Act.  Environmentalists such as Robertson are alarmed that the State Land Board, which is chaired by Brown, has not acted more definitively to protect thousands of acres in the Elliott State Forest from being privatized.  Privatization, they say, would certainly mean the clear-cutting of old growth trees on the only state land that still contains significant old growth forest. It was also due to Brown’s inaction on a long-understood problem, the pollution along the coast from logging and other uses, that the  Environmental Protection Agency fined Oregon $1.2 million in March.

Finally, Brown recently signed HB 4079, which allows pilot projects that would let homebuilders violate established urban growth boundaries to build affordable housing. The bill was vigorously opposed by the 1,000 Friends of Oregon group, which said it ignored the need for affordable housing close to urban centers, ignored the expense of extending utilities to the fringes of boundary areas and used “affordable housing as a ruse to open farm and forest lands and natural areas to urban sprawl.”

These issues will continue to alarm environmentalists, says Robertson, unless Brown changes her priorities. “Oregon has a reputation as a green, environmental state,” he says, “but right now we’re not living up to it. If we’re actually going to be leaders, Governor Brown will need to step it up and take charge.”

Although political conditions can change in a matter of seconds, current polling shows Brown the dominant Democrat in May and the most likely to win in the November 8th general election. If she prevails in both, she will be elected to serve out the balance of John Kitzhaber’s 2015 – 2019 term with the mandate of Oregon voters behind her and the implicit approval of her actions so far.