Oregon’s financial crisis is getting more serious and funding for higher education is also looking grim as the national economic recession continues to hit home. That’s according to a representative from the Oregon University System and several student body representatives.
Oregon’s financial crisis is getting more serious and funding for higher education is also looking grim as the national economic recession continues to hit home.
That’s according to a representative from the Oregon University System and several student body representatives.
The Oregon Legislature, which convened almost two months ago, is currently in the process of figuring out how to properly allocate the state’s increasingly low budget to different departments and agencies. Budget cuts across all state departments are mandatory, including the governor’s salary, according to a recent press release from Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
Currently on the chopping block is funding for higher education. According Diane Saunders, OUS communication director, the Legislature had to revise the budget for 2009 and made a 5-percent across-the-board cut in funding for higher education.
That equals $46 million that colleges in Oregon and the OUS Chancellor’s Office must now come up with through other means. Of that amount, $12 million was meant to provide support services to students and statewide public services.
Saunders said the legislature bases its analysis on the state’s revenue forecast, which was completed in February.
The next forecast is in May. According to Saunders, those numbers are not looking good.
“We may not see the budget for higher education until after the May forecast,” she said. “However, there have been talks of anywhere between 10 to 15 percent or more in budget cuts for higher education.”
Kulongoski proposed a budget of $917 million for higher education for 2009-11, but that no longer seems realistic under current economic situation.
“The economy is so drastically different than when the governor first recommended the budget so it is now null and void by the legislators,” said Emily McLain, the communications director for the Oregon Student Association.
Rather than sit and wait for the Legislature to make a decision in May, the OSA is making their case heard in the capital. Since January, the OSA and their student representatives have been in Salem lobbying the Legislature to hold on to their commitment to education amid an economic downturn.
“In an economic recession you need a bigger bang for your bucks and education is that big bang,” said Zach Martinson, ASPSU’s Legislative Affairs Director who works with the OSA. “Twenty people in prison is not going to make the state a whole lot of money compared to putting 20 students in school.”
Martinson has spearheaded the effort by bringing students from Portland State to the capital to testify before various committees concerning higher education. Martinson has personally testified a few times on behalf of Portland State students and once for funding for Oregon Health and Science University.
“What students are doing right now is meeting with legislators and telling them the best investment is in education,” said Tamara Henderson, executive director for the OSA. “We know that the average age of FAFSA applications is 28 years old—not just students from high school. These are Oregonians looking to get training before they went out to the job force.”
According to Martinson, the general attitude of the committees has been supportive of funding for higher education. Their only concern right now is how to fund it properly given the $3.3 billion deficit of the state. Another concern for Martinson is the level of priority the state is giving to post secondary funding compared to the K-12 program.
“The Legislature put K-12 as a mandate and they call colleges a ‘discretionary fund,'” Martinson said. “They don’t consider college a ‘must-fund program,’ they are not a 100-percent priority, so while the Legislature supports colleges in theory they are not doing it concretely.”
Henderson said the difference between post-secondary education and K-12 is that post-secondary education also has an influx of tuition revenue, which K-12 does not.
“Post secondary education needs to make their case strong because otherwise the legislators see funding for them as an option,” she said.
According to Saunders, two things have happened that may have contributed to the low funding in higher education in the past decade.
One is the passage of Measure 5 in Oregon, which requires the state to assume a bigger role in funding for K-12 schools, primarily paid for by property taxes before. That means less money available to colleges.
Secondly, Oregon’s minimum sentencing law puts more people in prisons for petty crimes, which creates more expenses for the state.
Saunders said the average amount of funding students get in Oregon is significantly less than the national average.
“We rank 45th in the country, with $5,624 per student compare to the national average of $8,328,” she said.
The Legislature is currently looking at other ways to raise more money. Saunders said some of the proposals include a beer tax, an increase in the corporate minimum tax and keeping kicker checks and putting them into a rainy day fund.