48 may put lid on higher ed funding

    Statewide controversy surrounds Measure 48, a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap Oregon’s spending. Its supporters say Measure 48 would create a rainy day fund, while opponents say it would slash services, including higher education.

    "[Measure 48] would be devastating for the higher education system if it did go into effect," said Dianne Saunders, Director of Communications for the Oregon University System (OUS).

    The proposed amendment would limit the spending of most state revenues including income tax, tuition, and lottery receipts. Spending could not exceed the "cap" except in relationship to inflation and population increases.

    The Secretary of State estimates that Measure 48 would cut $2.2 billion dollars from the 2007-09 State budget.

    "If this measure had been enacted in the 1990s, our budget would be 25 percent less than it is now," said Becca Uherbelau of Defend Oregon, a coalition created to fight Measure 48. "In terms of the higher education budget, that’d be equivalent to shutting down Portland State, Eastern Oregon University, and OSU’s agricultural program all at once."

    Matt Evans, spokesman for the Rainy Day Amendment Committee, said that he does not think funding for higher education would necessarily take a dive under Measure 48.

    "The Legislature is no longer going to be able to spend every penny that comes in the door satisfying every special interest group," he said. "They will have to make choices on where Oregon gets its best bang for the buck. I think the higher ed system has an easy argument that it ought to be a priority in that mix."

    Because the amendment limits spending and not revenues, state use of tuition dollars would be capped along with taxes. Campaigners Uherbelau and Evans had differing perspectives about how that might impact students.

    Evans said it would make school cheaper.

    "We believe Measure 48 will benefit Oregon’s public university students because it will remove incentives to shift the tuition burden to students," said Evans. "The prospect of a tuition freeze or even a tuition decrease [would be] much more likely."

    Uherbelau said that this element of the measure would probably result in cutting university programs.

    "Eventually the universities will have to deny students access," she said. "Because every student who comes in the door counts against the cap, even if they are able to pay."

    Lindsay Desrochers, Portland State vice president for Finance and Administration, said that this Measure comes at a time when the university is seeking increased state funding. While the university used to get 45 percent of its monies from the state, that percentage has since decreased to 15 percent, she said.

    "We have been reduced very significantly, and the state should be rebuilding the university," said Desrochers. "Ballot Measure 48 would make that impossible."

    Saunders said the OUS was asking for a 25 percent increase for the next biennium in state funds. "[OUS] is 46th in the nation for per-student funding," she said, "and the 25 percent increase we’re asking for would bring us to 40th-best-funded nationwide. We’re not even trying to get in the middle."

    "To put it crassly, we should be last," said the Cascade Policy Institute’s Steve Buckstein, a Measure 48 supporter who sees the amendment as an opportunity for the Oregon University System to seek more stable, private revenue streams.

    "I understand why students are worried about Measure 48," he said. "But they should see it as an incentive to separate from state support. Higher education brings value to the students, not the society."

    Oregon State University has halted the expansion of Reser Stadium pending November’s vote on Measure 48.