ASHLAND – Compared with a lot of recent legislative sessions, the one that’s starting next January looks fairly calm. Unlike many of Salem’s 21st century gatherings, the economy seems stable, meaning that state programs aren’t huddling together in a leaking lifeboat, wondering who’s going to be the next splash.
Of course, points out Ways and Means co-chairman Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, there are clouds. State revenues are scraping up against the level of the kicker, and the state having to mail back $300 million to taxpayers. The huge expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare has been impressive, but will cost some money. At some point the state Supreme Court will rule on the PERS reforms, which could put the state in a hole – although more in 2017-19 than in 2015-2017.
And there’s one other thing.
“We’re in danger of losing a generation,” warns Buckley, “unless we address early education and student debt.”
Because as things stand in Oregon’s education system, we’re losing kids coming and going.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has made a priority of early education and causing kids to appear at kindergarten ready to learn. It’s an understandable goal for a state with a deplorable high school graduation rate, and the knowledge that students need to be reading by third grade.
In addition, starting next year, the state is supposed to be paying for full-year kindergarten.
Then there’s Oregon’s universities, chronically underfunded, taking the worst hits in all the century’s recession-blasted legislative sessions because after all, they could always raise tuition. The situation produces both sticker shock discouragement for students at the outset and higher student debt at the finish – and too many who don’t finish.
“We’ve got K-12 back pretty much to where it was before the recession,” says Buckley. “If we can do that for higher ed,” it will be crucial.
“If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to get it done.”
Then there’s stabilizing of Oregon’s K-12 funding, to try to make Oregon’s school budget outcomes a bit less of a suspense movie.
Once again, we’re back to the great white whale of Oregon government, a revenue package that would put a foundation under the state school system, from finger painting to physics majors. It make take a lot of the excitement out of legislative sessions – and special sessions – but it might actually produce a state better prepared for the current century.
Kitzhaber has been pursuing the goal in a path going around the legislature, with lengthy negotiations between interest groups to send a measure directly to the ballot. Oregonians are still waiting to see the white smoke of an agreement rising from those talks, but Buckley, talking with other members of the joint Ways and Means Committee, thinks the next legislature might devise its own trip to the ballot.
“We’re doing everything we can do,” says Buckley. “We need the voters’ help. It would need to be on the ballot in 2016.”
Buckley, like everyone else in the Oregon political world, doesn’t see a sales tax. What he envisions is something like closing loopholes, reconsidering the state’s tiny corporate tax revenues and maybe some more from what he calls sin taxes.
Together, as a goal, the elements of the package would be offered to voters as a way to stabilize and strengthen education. And, notes Buckley, “In every voter survey, that’s what they say they want to do.”
Of course, that’s what Oregon politicians say they want to do, too, but there are reasons it hasn’t happened over the decades. It hasn’t been doable in the hard times, when it seemed to take all the state’s efforts just to keep the schools open – even for just about the shortest school year in the country – and it hasn’t worked in the brief better times, when the state seemed too bathed in relief to think any bigger.
Besides, a reality of large classes, larger tuition increases and fewer options at every level just began to seem normal – or at least Oregon normal.
Finding a workable proposal will be tough for either a legislature or a governor’s task force. The 2016 vote might bring out an electorate relatively favorable to a revenue measure, if it’s the right measure and if the Legislature’s PERS changes don’t get thrown out by the court.
We’re at a point of some economic stability, and when it seems inescapable that our economic future runs through our schools. It’s hard to see a better time to take on the challenge.
Of course, there’s always never.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 9/24/14.