SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday there might be up to $100 million in extra bonds for university construction projects in 2020 — an amount that would likely ensure funding for the proposed Student Success Center at Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend.
Brown made the comments in an appearance in the Capitol before the Higher Education Coordinating Committee. The governor said the extra money would be in addition to the $225 million her budget proposal requests be set aside for unspecified higher education capital projects in 2020.
But Brown cautioned that the Legislature hasn’t always agreed with her budget proposals, including higher education spending.
“I have gotten a lot of pushback from legislative leadership about ‘what is the plan’ and ‘do we need to keep building buildings?’” Brown said.
Brown joked that just the suggestion of available money attracts attention in the Capitol.
“I can feel the knives coming from the presiding officers as I speak,” she said.
Brown did not mention the Student Success Center or any other specific university capital project. But an extra $100 million in 2020 would likely be enough to greenlight the $12 million in state bonds requested for the Student Success Center at OSU-Cascades. The higher education committee currently has the facility ranked 10th out of 14 in priority for university projects statewide. OSU-Cascades officials worried the original $225 million proposal might not be big enough to get that far down the priority list. A coalition of the seven public university presidents has suggested $285 million could cover the cost of all the projects on the priority list.
OSU-Cascades students are paying an additional $5 million for the building in student fees. The center would house student activities, counseling and other offices.
Brown’s proposed $23.6 billion budget keeps spending for the state’s seven public universities essentially unchanged from current levels. University officials have said rising costs without additional funding would likely lead to significant tuition increases.
“I know students ideally would like to see a zero percent tuition increase,” Brown said. “In an ideal world, I would love that. I am challenged to see the practical realities of making that happen.”
Brown said she believes her budget will hold tuition increases under 5 percent and add 16,000 students to the Student Opportunity Grant program that gives up to $3,200 per student for students who come from financially disadvantaged families.
Any additional higher education funding would have to come from the Legislature, meaning taxes or shifting money from other programs. Brown’s budget already calls for taxes to increase funding for K-12 education.
“How do we get additional revenue on the table?” Brown said.
Brown said universities have struggled with finances since voters passed limits on property taxes in the 1990s. She said that in the long term, Oregon needs to create a “cradle-to-career” educational system — and funding source. She said the current debate too often pitted various levels of the educational system against each other — especially K-12 education against higher education.
“We need to do all of it,” Brown said.
Looming over any budget talks is the state’s estimated $22 billion long-term unfunded liability to the Public Employee Retirement System. Benefit payments eat up a large chunk of government spending for education.
Brown said her budget proposal prioritizes “stabilizing” PERS liability for K-12 districts. If the higher education committee or others have ideas how to expand that plan to include community colleges and universities, “I’m all ears,” she said.
Brown said she wanted to see PERS reform that includes requiring public employees have “skin in the game” through cost-sharing agreements. But she cautioned that court rulings have limited what can be done to alter existing benefits.
“We have a very narrow window of what is legally viable,” Brown said. “We are trying to avoid the hamster wheel of litigation.”
In Portland, Oregon State University President Ed Ray gave a “State of the University” address in which he talked about the challenges facing the university while outlining a vision for the future.
“Student tuition now pays more than 65 percent of the cost of Oregon State’s Corvallis campus educational operations and the state only 22 percent,” Ray said, according to remarks released by Oregon State. “This represents more than a 50 percent decline in the state’s relative contribution from 15 years ago. And nearly a 43 percent increase in the share students and their families pay.”
Ray called on residents to push state leaders for better funding because it was the key to a better future for the state.
“Help them commit to public higher education being a public good,” Ray said. “Not a privilege enjoyed only by the wealthy. Going forward, I ask our state’s leaders to listen to students. They will say that Oregon’s public universities no longer can be funded on their backs and the backs of their families.”
Ray praised the progress of OSU-Cascades, noting that enrollment grew 4.6 percent, funding was secured for a second academic building and the Bend City Council unanimously approved the campus master plan.
After Ray’s speech, Oregon State announced “Vision Oregon,” a plan to seek out ideas from the public for the future of the university for the next 50 years.
Article was originally published in The Bend Bulletin.