Max Denning

The Oregon State Legislature convened for its 2019 session less than two weeks ago, and steps it may or may not take that will affect Eastern Oregon University’s financial situation were on the top of the agenda for the EOU board of trustees at its meetings this week. While President Tom Insko said he remains confident the university can keep the tuition increase under 5 percent, he conceded he was worried about the flat funding for higher education proposed in Gov. Kate Brown’s base budget for the 2019-2021 biennium, which was released in December 2018.

The university effectively considers flat funding, which is funding at the same level as the previous biennium, a cut due to inflation and increased personnel costs, such as PERS. Insko said he believes that the Legislature will approve a budget with more than flat funding for higher education.

“All the indications I see right now is that I don’t think we will be (flat funded),” Insko said. “Rational minds will come together and identify where that right base funding level is for higher education.”

Higher education institutions are looking for an additional $120 million from the base budget in order to keep tuition increases under 5 percent and maintain their current staffing levels.

“At that level, I think we can really minimize any tuition increases we’d have to pass on to students,” Insko said.

Trustee Richard Chaves said flat funding would severely hinder the university’s goals.

“If that ended up to be the final result, we would have significant reductions,” Chaves said. During the middle of the trustees meeting on Thursday, Chaves, Insko, Chair David Nelson and Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Committee, joined a conference call with the state’s university leadership and the governor.

After the meeting, Chaves said he believes the governor wants to ensure the state’s public universities receive the funding they need.

“She is working hard with the Legislature right now to deal with that because education in general is a priority for her,” Chaves said. “In the meeting we just had, she repeated some of those statements about supporting higher ed and working with the joint chairs to improve the funding for higher ed beyond the flat (funding).”

Nelson, who was a state senator for 16 years, said university funding often takes a backseat in the Legislature.

“I can remember (only) two sessions where higher education was a priority,” he said. “Traditionally it’s not a priority.”

Cannon, who presented to the board on the efforts of HECC to lobby for more funding, told The Observer that the focal point of the current Legislature isn’t the state’s public universities.

“The primary focus of legislators who are working on revenue and investments is pre-K through 12, not higher education. They have made that clear,” Cannon said. “That may be shifting as legislators get a greater understanding of the needs within post-secondary education, as well as the costs that students will bear if higher ed is flat funded.”

In December, Insko was quoted in The Oregonian saying EOU may have to raise tuition by 10 to 15 percent if flat funding was all the university received. To increase tuition by more than 5 percent, EOU’s board of trustees must receive approval from HECC. Cannon said he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“The last thing my commission wants to be doing is having to deal with requests for 10 or 15 or 20 percent increases in tuition,” Cannon said. “At the same time, we recognize that many of our universities are in a real bind, where without revenue increases, whether it’s tuition or state (funds), they’ll be making significant program cuts that also harm students. It’s a terrible position to be in.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer