Legislature tracks down expendable programs

Even as Portland State University struggles to adapt to reduced funding, the Oregon Legislature is looking to reduce state money even further in a series of work sessions scheduled to conclude today.

At issue is a proposal to lop $30 million off of the Oregon University System’s (OUS) fee remissions program, $5.2 million of which would come from PSU. OUS and PSU officials strenuously oppose this cut.

The fee remissions go toward reducing tuition for minorities, merit scholars and other students that admissions officers believe would add something missing to a college class.

On Wednesday, OUS Chancellor Richard Jarvis told the joint subcommittee on education that fee remissions are crucial.

“The use of fee remissions is an integral part of the process for us in the way in which we go about constructing our class, the way we go about conducting our class profile, indeed, the way in which every university that I’m aware of in this country goes about this process,” Jarvis said.

The cuts to fee remissions are opposed by all the OUS university presidents, including PSU President Daniel Bernstine.

In a letter to Ways and Means Committee Co-Chair Kurt Schrader (D-Canby), Bernstine stated, “Fee remissions are especially important at an urban university such as PSU where access is integral to our mission and students’ financial aid packages don’t often meet their full needs.”

The fate of the fee cuts depend on the course lawmakers choose between two proposed budgets.

The governor’s revised budget would largely preserve the remissions, while a budget written by the co-chairs of the powerful Ways and Means Committee would cut them.

Both budgets are subject to further cuts, however.

In May, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis announced that forecast tax revenue for 2003-05 were more than $640 less than estimated in the March forecast. The latest downgrading brings the current forecast to $9.76 billion, more than $3.3 billion less than was predicted at the start of 2001.

As a result, much uncertainty remains about the budget, which could take several months to finalize. When asked in May whether the end result would more closely resemble the governor’s budget or the co-chairs’, Senate President Peter Courteney (D-Salem), said, “There aren’t two budgets on the table, there are 10 – and none of them will pass.”

The money that PSU will get in the end is also up in the air. The state budget, “is only one piece of a jigsaw puzzle on the table when the rest of the pieces are in the box,” said Grattan Kerans, chief lobbyist for OUS.

PSU’s share won’t be known for certain until as late as September or October. The Legislature must first pass a budget for all of OUS. That budget is then divided up amongst the universities.

Guessing PSU’s budget based on state data is “a little like reading tea leaves,” said David Johnson, a Portland State professor who chairs the Budget and Priorities Committee, a group specifically convened to deal with dropping state dollars.

In a letter dated May 23, Bernstine states the governor’s budget would translate to $130 million for PSU over the next two years, while the co-chairs would leave about $10 million less for the university.

The previous two-year figure was $129 million, down from an original grant of $144 million.

As education subcommittee members take a hard look at OUS’s share of state money, PSU’s funding is likely to keep dropping.

On Tuesday, the subcommittee cut money that would have paid for increases due to inflation in some areas, following directions from the ways and means co-chairs.

Jarvis said the cuts didn’t represent actual inflation. “At this point, they’re just cuts,” he said.

The subcommittee is also considering further advice from the ways and means co-chairs to eliminate all vacant positions.

Rep. Susan Morgan (R-Myrtle Creek), chair of the subcommittee, said she would be willing to work with OUS on the number of vacant positions cut, but “truthing” the budget requires positions to be cut at a level comparable to other state institutions.

The number of cuts remains a touchy point.

“Obviously, we don’t have the same (employee) turnover as the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Kerans said.