Governor, students push for grant funding

Before joining students from public universities around the state on the steps yesterday, Gov. Ted Kulongoski answered questions from student leaders, reiterating his commitment to higher education. In a session he called "preaching to the choir," he vehemently emphasized the need to better fund higher education, stressing his proposal to fully fund the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

The governor had invited the Oregon Student Association, a higher education lobbying group, to the Capitol to discuss student concerns about access to a college education. OSA coordinated bringing other public university students, many of whom were supportive of Kulongoski’s decision to fund the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

The Oregon Opportunity Grant is the state’s only need-based grant. Currently, Oregon’s budget only funds 70 percent of eligible applicants. In his 2005-07 budget, Kulongoski proposed more than doubling the OOG allotment to cover all eligible applicants.

In his office with student government representatives, Kulongoski gave a fiery indictment of public disinterest in the education system’s budget woes.

"Where you and I are and where the public is at on higher-ed, it’s night and day…" Kulongoski said, relaying attitudes from focus groups. "They’ve got a 1980s view, not a 1920s view."

He slammed what he calls Oregon’s trend of disinvestment in education.

"I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Japan. I’ve seen all these places around the world. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you see what China and India and Japan are putting into post-secondary education, we’re going to be left behind."

Kulongoski and other speakers framed adequate funding for education as a legislative issue, continually referring to "this building" as the source of possible solutions.

Lobbying was another recurring theme of the conference and subsequent rally. The governor and Representative Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) both asked for student scrutiny of the legislative session.

Kulongski noted that Oregonians have a lack of interest in school funding at all levels, but especially higher education. He implied that lobbying would boost higher ed in legislative priorities.

"There’s a reality in this building. The truth of it is, the advocates for K-12 are more numerous, they’re louder, and they have more influence."

"You guys have been carrying the weight for much too long," Buckley said. "Keep the pressure on us. Keep the pressure on this building. Keep those phone calls coming!"

"I believe education is the great equalizer," Kulongoski told the small crowd of students on the capitol steps.

Many students carried signs expressing their approval for Kulongoski’s support for higher education, including a small contingent from PSU.

Though education advocates have vocally criticized the proposed $5 million for K-12 as inadequate, others note that education has taken relatively smaller cuts than other state programs. The combined education allotments make up 55 percent of the proposed budget.

Other viewpoints in the funding debate were noticeably absent Thursday.

To Senator Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), it makes sense that university students would share part of the burden. Ferrioli, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said he sympathized with the students’ increasing tuition burden, but pointed out incurring debt as a student can be a relatively solid economic decision.

Kulongoski has proposed to raise OUS tuition by five percent each of the next two years, but told his audience he had had other visions for tuition costs. "If I thought I could get away with it, I would’ve had a freeze."

Though he focused on education, Kulongoski also touched on more general complaints about this biennium’s budget cuts.

The state has $11.9 million to spend. That’s an estimated $1 billion short of maintaining service levels of state-funded programs, but the governor has repeatedly said he won’t introduce any new plans to generate revenue. Voters have soundly dismissed past measures to increase taxes.

"There is this belief that we can have it all," Kulongoski said. "You want better services? There’s a payment that comes with that."

He said Oregon’s tax structure is vulnerable in periods of a weak economy – 83 percent of state revenue comes from personal income tax this biennium – and voters have resisted changing the system to be more stable.

"The system doesn’t reward long term thinking. I’ve never had a citizen come up to me and say, ‘what are you doing for me in 30 years?’ They all want to know what I’m doing for them now."

The governor stressed that he wants "everyone to understand how important (education) is. Not just to me, not just to you, but to Oregon."

"It’s about Oregon in the end."