Tussling over tuition

In legislative hearings on the state higher education budget Tuesday and Wednesday, Oregon University System board members echoed a familiar strain to Salem lawmakers: higher education needs more money.

This familiar message on the funding of Oregon’s state universities came this week despite an upheaval in the budget process that may sidestep the committee’s decisions and delay the budget approval until Labor Day.

After the joint Ways and Means budget committee did not reach agreement on K-12 spending, the largest chunk of state funds, Republican Speaker of the House Karen Minnis formed the House Budget Committee, saying Democrats were unwilling to compromise. The Democratic Senate has since formed its own budget committee.

“Originally we were saying the budget would be done by July Fourth. Now people are saying Labor Day,” said Morgan Cowling, legislative director for Oregon Student Association.

To make sure Oregon’s economy has a healthy future, “it’s incumbent on us now to look at all the students in the state, whether they are enrolled with us or not,” Oregon University System Chancellor George Pernsteiner said.

He said higher education needs to broaden its scope, but is currently struggling to maintain a system that relies too heavily on part-time faculty and puts off important maintenance.

Both House and Senate budgets fund a tuition freeze for next year at all state universities, including Portland State – a $33.5 million project. Both allot $24.6 million to the Oregon Opportunity Grant, over half of Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s funding proposal for the grant, which helps pay tuition for low-income students.

Which budget has most momentum depends largely on speed. If one of the chambers finishes a budget quickly, it may replace the two budgets competing within Ways and Means. If Ways and Means makes progress, the chambers’ budgets may be abandoned. If the two chambers have budgets ready at the same time, the two versions may both be reviewed by the other body.

Budget shortfalls are an old story to the budget subcommittee members. Though Oregon’s revenue has grown since the last time legislators debated over budgets, demands on state resources have outstripped funding increases.

The second and third days of higher education budget hearings delved into specific numbers, comparing the multiple plans for parceling out state funds.

Normally, legislators draft one budget. This biennium, both co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee have developed budgets for $12.393 billion, one for the Republican-controlled House and one for the Democratic Senate, adding a step in the process.

Sen. Kurt Schrader’s budget devotes $137 million more than the House to the total education portion, which includes K-12 and community colleges as well as universities. But since K-12 receives $150 million dollars under the senator’s plan, Rep. Wayne Scott’s proposed budget is more generous to higher education, allotting $7 million more than Schrader’s proposed $782 million. Kulongoski dedicated a smaller percentage of his recommended budget to education, but offered the same percentage as the Senate of his total to higher education.

The co-chairs’ budgets devote a smaller percentage of funds to education at all levels including higher education than in the last biennium. In the approved budget for 2003-2005, universities received 6.8 percent of the state money. For this biennium, the House plan offers the highest percentage to higher education with 6.5 percent of the budget.