Nelson calls for state to make commitment to higher ed

Former Oregon legislator wants state to seek creative way out of financial crisis

By Dick Mason, The La Grande Observer, @lgoMason

David Nelson, of Pendleton, chair of the Eastern Oregon University Board of Trustees, does not foresee the Legislature providing the state’s public universities with a significant boost in funding for the 2017-19 biennium.

Nelson cites the state’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall and its lack of commitment to higher education as the reasons.

This lack of commitment is evident in the decreasing amount of money Oregon spends on higher education. The state spent 15 percent of its total budget on higher education in 1987 but today spends only 5 percent, according to Richard Chaves, a member of the EOU Board of Trustees.

Nelson said this lack of commitment to higher education is disturbing.

“The Legislature needs to make higher education a priority,” said Nelson, who served as a member of the state Senate from 1996 to 2013.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s recommended budget plan for the state’s community colleges and public universities would receive less funding than requested — forcing them to cut back or raise tuition to cover rising costs and enrollment.

Higher education officials are asking for $767.3 million in public support for the upcoming biennium, a $100 million increase over the amount outlined in Brown’s recommended budget released Dec. 1.

But the request comes as Oregon’s overall public university enrollment saw a slight decline this year, with gains primarily in the total number of students of color on campuses.

Nelson said the state would help itself financially in the long term by supporting higher education. He explained that college graduates are more likely to become productive employees who generate additional income tax revenue for the state.

Nelson doubts that the Legislature will generate more money for higher education by raising taxes after Measure 97 — which would have boosted corporate tax rates in Oregon — was decisively defeated in the November election.

“Legislators realize that there is little support in Oregon for a tax increase,” Nelson said.

The financial outlook for higher education is also being hurt by the state of Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, which will cost employers, including the state’s public universities, about $2 billion in 2017-19.

Nelson said something creative needs to be done to address Oregon’s financial problems. He noted that about seven years ago, California helped itself out of a financial jam by selling a number of its buildings and then leasing them back from the new owners. The step generated more than $1 billion for the state.

Nelson believes that this sort of creative solution would be better for Oregon than balancing the state budget with tuition increases and cuts to health care, law enforcement and other state services.

“We need to triangulate,” Nelson said. “We need a solution that does not raise taxes or cut programs.”

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