Oregon Senate votes down schools budget

June 17, 2013 11:54 am

SALEM — After what one lawmaker called a “good old-fashioned legislative debate,” the state Senate on Monday rejected a $6.55 billion public school budget.

A single Democrat, Sen. Chris Edwards of Eugene, joined 14 Republicans in voting against the measure, ensuring its failure with a 15-15 vote. The state’s K-12 budget is an important component in balancing the overall state budget; without it, local school districts cannot move forward and balance their books.

For his school district, Edwards said, a “perfect storm” of declining enrollment, limited reserves and compressed property taxes means the proposed public school budget would still be a “cuts budget.”

“I’m not convinced it’s the best we can do,” Edwards said.

The Eugene Democrat’s concerns were echoed by the Republicans he joined to defeat the measure.

“Six point fifty-five billion?” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, during the debate. “Why did we run? Why did we run for the state Senate if all we were going to do was a status quo cuts budget? We can do so much more. There is no reason to settle on this number.”

But Democrats countered that the proposed budget would send $1 billion more to schools than in the previous biennium, $6.75 billion in total, combined with the $200 million in buying power from cuts already made this session to the state Public Employees Retirement System.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said passing the school budget is the most important step lawmakers will take this session. The school budget, he said, would “build back a robust school system Oregon used to be known for.”

Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, said people are “tired of bake sales, and tired of growing class sizes and teacher layoffs.”

“They asked me, and they are asking us today, to stand up and vote for (the school) budget,” she said.

The 2013 legislative session has been defined by an ongoing debate between the two parties on cutting PERS and raising taxes. Both sides said they would like to boost the K-12 budget. Both blame the other for the impasse.

Democrats said they want to see a Republican commitment to raise taxes.

At one point, a deal was on the table that would have funneled $7 billion to public schools. But partisan gridlock has all but stopped the talks. The inability to pass the school budget will likely kick up the pressure on pension and revenue talks in the coming week.

“There is a lot of talk on why this budget is a problem, why this budget is too low; so far, I’ve seen a lot of talk, I haven’t seen much do,” said Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, who is one of the Legislature’s chief budget writers. “I haven’t actually had a serious discussion from the other side of the aisle on PERS in over five weeks,” Devlin said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber blasted Republicans in a statement, calling it “disappointing” that Senate Republicans “squandered an opportunity to stabilize school funding.”

The governor said “it’s inexcusable that D.C.-like gamesmanship won out over Oregon common sense.”

Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn at the end of June, but the budget stall could mean lawmakers continue into July. Constitutionally, they do not have to adjourn until July 13.

Bend-La Pine Superintendent Ron Wilkinson said he’s hopeful the school budget impasse will result in more money funneled to K-12 schools. He’s holding out for more systemic changes to PERS.

“Right now, we’re 80 teachers short of our pre-recession staffing ratios,” Wilkinson said. “Anything we can get to cut that down and put more teachers in the classrooms, that helps.”