Ballot initiative may cost schools millions

    The Oregon University System could be cut by 6 percent next year if voters approve a statewide tax break at the polls this November.

    The ballot initiative, which is sponsored by the national anti-tax organization Freedom Works, would cut most households’ taxes by approximately $140 per person. It would also cut the state budget by approximately 6 percent a year, or more than $400 million annually by 2008.

    Currently, 58 percent of Oregon’s personal income tax revenues go to schools and universities, which are ranked 46th in the nation for per-student funding.

    "Ballot initiative 14 will have an immediate impact on us," said Lisa Zavala, senior associate director for Government Relations at the OUS. "We’re woefully underfunded as it is."

    Zavala said Oregon’s public universities have already experienced a "historic slide in state funding." The Oregon University System’s share of Oregon’s General Fund has been halved in the last seventeen years, going from 12.2 percent in 1987-89 to 6 percent in 2003-05.

    Portland State Provost Roy Koch said that if the State’s budget is cut by 6 percent, the University is likely to take more than a 6 percent cut. Higher education spending is considered “discretionary” and will be cut before federally mandated programs.

    ”We’d be looking at roughly several million dollars in cuts,” he said. “It’d be very, very difficult. It might not be possible.”

    Michael Fung, PSU budget director of Finance and Administration, said that a permanent 6 percent budget cut would be "pretty bad" for Portland State University. "Students should be going out and fighting against it."

    Freedom Works did not respond to multiple calls for comment by press time.

    As of July 30th, the Freedom Works website was headed by a blog titled "More Money for Education Not the Solution." Oregon Freedom Works’ website, as of July 22nd, featured a blog titled "Throwing More Money at School is Not the Answer," disputing the idea that smaller class sizes are related to better education.

    "I propose a new teachers’ union motto: ‘Government monopoly now, government monopoly tomorrow, government monopoly forever!’" Freedom Works’ Brendan Steinhauser wrote.

    Ballot initiative 14 was the second initiative to verify enough signatures to clear Oregon’s November ballot. It was written by anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore and funded by Loren Parks, a Nevada millionaire and manufacturer of medical devices who is Oregon’s biggest campaign contributor.

    Initiative 14 is one of two tax-oriented measures that Freedom Works will be championing this fall. The organization is promoting ballot initiative 14 as a family-friendly tax cut since it will give bigger tax breaks to tax filers with larger households: thus a family of three would get an approximate break of $420, while a family of five would get $700.

    Freedom Works’ other measure is a spending limit sometimes called TABOR or the "taxpayer bill of rights." The group is promoting similar legislation across the country, such as in Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

    Zavala said that because of increasing disinvestment, Oregon university students currently paid about 65 percent of the total cost of their educations, while the state paid about 35 percent.

    "In that past, even ten years ago, if that number wasn’t reversed it was at least closer to 50 percent. It’s a question of affordability ?” can students afford higher education anymore?" Zavala said. "We just could not afford another 6 percent cut."