Kulongoski to the rescue

When this year’s legislative session drew to a close, it appeared all but certain that Oregon’s higher education spending would be the biggest gash in a series of massive cuts to the state’s budget.

When this year’s legislative session drew to a close, it appeared all but certain that Oregon’s higher education spending would be the biggest gash in a series of massive cuts to the state’s budget.

But Gov. Ted Kulongoski did something practically unprecedented. He had mercy. He had foresight. He vetoed his political peers’ plan to cut education spending. And for that he deserves a round of applause.

In the closing hours of this year’s session—a six-month conference in which Oregon’s top political decision makers set policy that will last at least two years—state legislators approved an $11.5 million cut to state education funding.

It was an unwelcome but not unexpected move. After all, state lawmakers have historically placed education first on the chopping block as soon as the economy gets rough.

But Kulongoski announced shortly afterward that he plans to veto the move and restore the $11.5 million cut, replacing it with money expected to come from a tax amnesty.

Because he did so, annual tuition rates for most schools in Oregon will rise by a percentage in the single digits. The increase at Portland State University is expected to be 8.5 percent—an increase from $1,308 to $1,419 per year for full-time undergraduates. It could’ve been a lot worse.

Higher tuition was an unavoidable outcome from this year’s session. But because of Kulongoski’s 11th-hour political wrangling, we’re doing better than other parts of the country.

For example, University of Washington students will experience a 14 percent hike next year. University of California students will be hit with a 9.3 percent increase, according to The Oregonian.

What Kulongoski saw and what Oregon’s state representatives and senators failed to realize is that education should be among the last state-supported programs to face cuts during economic crises.

The education system serves as the primary safety net during times of high unemployment. It’s the reason Oregon has experienced a meteoric rise in university enrollment. Besides the benefits conferred by earning a degree, school acts as a form of limbo during economic downfall, a safe harbor on rough seas. Why limit access by gouging the people who need it the most?

But also, by bucking the traditional education-slashing trend, Kulongoski showed he’s invested in the state’s future.

Oregon generally rates somewhere in the middle of the national rankings for education. But if the price tag for education becomes too high, the state will be unable to hold onto its best and brightest.

This will eventually limit the state’s financial power, as well as decrease the number of quality educators.

Louisiana, my former home of several years, waited far too long to learn of these consequences.

The state ranks second to last in education, behind only Mississippi.

When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal—who the GOP had tapped as their next great hope for president until an awkwardly disastrous answer to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address—campaigned for office in 2007, he rode a campaign platform built on just two promises.

He preached ethics and educational reform. Every other part of his campaign was so secondary it might as well have never been mentioned. And it was enough for him to take the election with a 55 percent share of the votes.
Ethics reform was sorely needed. And after massive slashes to education budgets year after year, the people of Louisiana finally realized something had to be done.

Education is finally taking a front seat. Nationally, President Obama has wisely promised to slash some of NASA’s budget and put it toward education.

If only Oregon’s lawmakers could avoid their old guard methods and follow Jindal and Obama’s lead.

Thankfully, Kulongoski is the man who wields the veto pen. And with it, he has made the right decision.