Why is it so hard to fund K-12 education in Oregon?

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

The Oregon House of Representatives passed a $7.255 billion K-12 education budget, and it passed yesterday in the Oregon Senate. The voting was along party lines. Democrats, who control the state House and Senate, voted yes for the $7.255 billion, which fairly closely follows the $7.235 billion K-12 funding suggested in the Democratic Ways and Means Co-Chair’s budget. Republicans voted no, arguing that K-12 should be getting more funding. Some Republicans felt the K-12 funding should be as high as $8 billion.

Democrats agree that K-12 needs more funding, and yet they voted for the $7.255 billion anyway. Why would they do that? Back in the third week of March, Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) explained “The answer is very simple, [Democrats] want to set up a scenario where tax increases are necessary and they also want to take the Kicker away from the people unnecessarily if indeed it does kick.”

The Democrats have already begun telegraphing their next moves, and it looks like Sen. Kruse was right.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Central Lane and Linn Counties) says in his newsletter “Getting to the [K-12] funding levels that are really needed won’t be possible with our current revenue system, where the largest and most profitable businesses pay among the lowest effective tax rates in the nation.” Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) wrote in a recent newsletter “we may still find ourselves unable to keep any of those new revenues because the kicker will have kicked… the only way we’ll be able to get additional money to K-12 is by voting to hold back or modify the kicker.”

This is a tried-and-true approach for Democrats in Oregon. Back during Measures 66 and 67 in 2010, Democrats told Oregonians “it’s for the kids” – but after those measures passed K-12 funding was actually cut $150 million while other agencies, most notably DHS, saw an increase. DHS alone increased $330 million in that budget cycle (General and Lottery funds).

There is $1.8 billion of increased revenue in the coming $18.5 billion 2015-2017 Oregon General and Lottery funds budget. Funding K-12 education at $8 billion would still leave $405 million of INCREASES available to other budget areas. That’s on top of the $2 billion of increased revenue already contained in the current $16.75 billion budget.

But it’s never enough, is it? There are an infinite number of “good” things that government can do. But in order for some people to get “free” or subsidized college or health care from the government, some other people have to pay for those “free” things in the form of higher taxes.

Oregonians have shown a willingness to raise taxes on other people, but a reluctance to raise taxes on themselves. Oregonians voted for more taxes on businesses and “the rich” with Measures 66 and 67, but soundly defeated Measure 86 last November. Measure 86 would have let the state borrow money to create a fund where the investment returns paid for college financial aid. Taxpayers would have been on the hook to repay the principal, expected to be $100 million, and they said no to that.

Interestingly, around $23 million of the increased state revenue not going to K-12 in the Co-Chairs’ budget is to increase the Oregon Opportunity Grant – college aid that doesn’t have be repaid – for eligible students from families with adjusted gross income of less than $70,000. According to their website “Opportunity Grants are funded primarily by Oregon taxpayers.” Looks like the Democrat controlled legislature has found a way to circumvent the will of the Measure 86 voters.

Spending someone else’s money is more likely to result in solutions like that, to just looking for more money to give college students. A better approach, though, would be to find out why college tuitions are increasing nearly twice as fast as medical costs and then start taking steps to reduce tuitions.

If we’re ever going to get to stable and adequate K-12 funding in Oregon, we’re going to have to stop the bait-and-switch budgeting approach used by Oregon Democrats. We’re going to have to truly prioritize K-12 funding and stop viewing taxpayer dollars as an endless supply of other people’s money to do “good” things with.

To read more from Dan, visit www.dan-lucas.com