Not Just Another Day at the Capitol

Kate Brown assumed the governorship in Oregon, but her swearing in was hardly more than a coffee break in a legislative session off to a very fast start.

Kate Brown assumed the governorship in Oregon, but her swearing in was hardly more than a coffee break in a legislative session off to a very fast start.

The Oregon legislature took time out Wednesday morning to witness the swearing in of new Governor Kate Brown before returning to its fast-paced start that has startled many observers and caused lobbyists and staffers to hustle like they do at the end of sessions.

In a brief six-minute speech, Brown paid respect to the contributions made by former Governor John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid an influence-peddling scandal, then made clear she wouldn't allow any family members close to state policymaking or payrolls.

While no one downplayed the significance of Brown's ascension to the governorship (she is the 38th governor, but only the second female governor in the state's history), neither she nor legislative leaders made a big deal of the transition. Legislative work continued as if nothing really big had happened. That may be because Brown is no stranger to the building or the process. She is a known quantity in Salem.

On her first day in office, Brown joined the governors of California and Washington in calling for an end to a labor dispute that has crippled West Coast ports and stranded cargos, including perishable farm products from rural parts of Oregon. Trouble on the docks was doubly on Brown's first-day agenda after Hanjin announced last week it was abandoning use of Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland because of what it called low productivity.

Day two of the Brown tenure was greeted by the release of the latest quarterly economic forecast, which predicted the state's quirky personal income tax kicker would be triggered. The good news is that the state's economy is performing better than projected. The bad news is that state tax revenue will exceed the 2 percent threshold that triggers the kicker and rebates to taxpayers.

The projected kicker rebate, which would take the form of credits on 2015 tax year returns, is $349 million. For legislators — and the governor — that represents a sizable hole in the state budget.

State economists took the occasion to remind Oregonians we have one of the most volatile tax systems because of a heavy reliance on personal and corporate income taxes, which ebb and flow along with economic downturns and upturns. The economists also noted that states such as Washington that rely heavily on sales taxes face the challenge of an eroding tax base as populations age and they buy fewer big-ticket items.

These are just a few of the challenges raining down on Brown. She also must try to satisfy demands for more K-12 public education spending, continue health care transformation efforts that include an extension of a hospital provider tax and address a push from higher education for more financial support.

When Brown served in the legislature, including as Senate majority leader, she focused much of her personal energy on civil rights, mental health and juvenile justice issues. As secretary of state, Brown pushed for Oregon's initiative and referendum system reforms, performance audits and more accessible voter registration.

Because Brown has been thrown into an already boiling pot, she is unlikely to recommend a hugely different menu of priorities than her predecessor. What will be most noticeable is a difference in style. As majority leader, Brown was available to meet and listen to advocates. She looked for compromise. She dispensed realistic political advice. That's unlikely to change, even though she has changed offices.