Stop using schools as budget hostages

by Dan Lucas

Last month I wrote about how Oregon can stabilize K-12 school funding by reforming PERS and by making K-12 funding part of a “core fund” that gets funded first. I also wrote how the shift in the Oregon budget from education to human services has hurt the stability of K-12 funding, and how additional rainy day funds are not the answer.

Budget Hostages

The reason there is a need in the Oregon budget for a “core fund” is because without it, the programs that Oregonians care the most about will continue to be used as budget hostages. Those programs are public safety (prisons and state police), K-12 education and the key human services for Oregon’s most vulnerable.

I didn’t come up with that list – it’s the list that groups like Defend Oregon used in the Measure 66/67 campaign to push for a tax increase of $730 million. Defend Oregon is an extremely well funded PAC made up primarily of teachers’ unions, public employee unions and labor unions. Oregon voters were told that voting Yes on M66/M67 would protect schools, and yet even after M66/M67 passed, school districts around the state have continued to face painful cuts. Why is that?

A big part of the reason is that K-12 school funding was again being used as a budget hostage. Even in the budget cycle that the M66/M67 tax increases passed, K-12 funding in the budget was cut $150 million while other agencies, most notably DHS, saw an increase. DHS alone increased $330 million in that budget cycle.

There is an inherent conflict between DHS (now DHS/OHA) and K-12 funding because they are the two biggest items in the General/Lottery fund budget – the part of the budget that the Legislature has the most control of. DHS/OHA employees make up almost 1 in 3 state workers (non university system workers) in Oregon’s 80 or so state agencies, boards and commissions.

Education Committee Chair Admits Schools Are Used As Budget Hostages

At an Education Town Hall meeting in Beaverton in July 2010, the Chair of the Oregon House Education Committee admitted that schools are used as budget hostages.

When asked about the information above, “But all six [DHS] divisions had their budget increased.  All six divisions of DHS for a total of $330 million while the State School Fund was cut $150 million.  So my question is what was more important than schools that caused that huge growth in DHS?”, Education Committee Chair Rep. Sara Gelser replied “There are tremendous needs within DHS, and unfortunately within DHS you don’t have that consistent level of advocacy that you do for K-12 schools.”, and “Everyone connects to K-12 schools in some way.”

So because everyone connects to K-12 schools, they can be used to advocate for higher taxes that don’t actually end up going to K-12 schools? Taxes that go other agencies that don’t have the same “consistent level of advocacy that you do for K-12 schools”. In fact, while those other agencies grow, the K-12 funding can actually be cut.

Hence the need for a “core fund” to protect K-12 funding. We need to stop letting K-12 school funding be used as a budget hostage.

click here for a transcript of the July 2010 Education in Oregon Town Hall

click here for the audio of the July 2010 Education in Oregon Town Hall