In a year when legislative monetary handouts will be limited, the saddest casualty of fiscal prudence may be proper funding for higher education in Oregon.
Granted, there remains time on the legislative clock for lawmakers to boost spending, but the die may already be cast. That’s because the state faces a whopping unpaid subsidy called PERS — the Public Employee Retirement System — that will cost the state, including universities, around $2 billion in the next two years.
The Legislature needs to find a path of success regarding PERS, but it is fiscally challenging with no easy answers. Meanwhile, higher education leaders asked for more than $760 million in funding — $100 million more than Gov. Kate Brown requested in her budget proposal — to help.
That total — $760 million — sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but that extraordinary number should be viewed in the context of the total amount the state spends on higher education, compared to what it spent decades ago. For example, the state spends far less now — around 5 percent of its total budget — than it did 30 years ago.
When we talk about funding education, we are really discussing opportunity. Education is a gateway to opportunity. Opportunity for a higher-paying job which, in turn, is good for our community, our state and nation. And, when we chat about higher education funding in Oregon, we are also talking about commitment and the law of unintended consequences. The state’s commitment to higher education funding isn’t what it should be.
Yet, the state is between a rock and a hard place regarding funding because of the PERS funding chasm. The PERS challenge was created years ago with the best intentions, but now it is a lingering fiscal ghost haunting state coffers.
We believe education is the foundation to success, opportunity and a strong prosperous nation. We believe proper funding for higher education should be a priority. However, we are not insensitive to the fiscal woes of the state.
However, a good question that should be asked — to lawmakers, college officials and, most of all, voters — is whether or not there is an innovative way to find more funding for higher education in Oregon. Perhaps there isn’t any way to solve this issue. Yet we as a state should try to find an answer, not to discover a way to hand out money, but as a method to invest in one of the most important pillars to the foundation of our nation — education.