Our Oregon recently ran ads criticizing State Representative Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point) for his role in helping the Ways and Means Committee to develop the K-12 budget that was recently signed into law by Governor John Kitzhaber.
The ads falsely claim that ““Richardson wants to make drastic cuts to services we depend on … so Richardson can keep more than $440 million in unspent funds for his political priorities.”
In fact, Oregon’s K-12 budget was developed and passed in the strongest possible bi-partisan fashion. It was first adopted by the Ways and Means Committee, which consists of two Democrats (Rep. Peter Buckley D-Ashland, Sen. Richard Devlin D-Tualitin) and Richardson, the lone Republican. The co-chair’s budget contained $100 million more for K-12 education than the Governor’s original budget. It passed unanimously in the Senate. In the House, Democratic Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan told Republicans, “I’ll bring my 16 names, you bring your 16 names and that’s how we’re going to get through it.”
It is true that the K-12 budget proposes to keep $440 million in Oregon’s School Stability Fund. However, this money is not being tapped for anyone’s pet political priorities, it is being retained to ensure that further cuts are not necessary during the second year of the legislative biennium.
As Governor Kitzhaber has pointed out: “The most irresponsible thing we could do is to pump this budget with one-time resources and find ourselves in 2013 in exactly the same situation we find ourselves in today,”
Yet that’s exactly what Our Oregon is proposing. Why?
To unravel that mystery, it helps to know who is really behind Our Oregon. As Richard Leonitti reported in the Oregon Catalyst three years ago, Our Oregon is a 501(c)4 non-profit that was formed in 2005 by Arthur Towers, political director for SEIU local 503 and Larry Wolf, then head of the Oregon Education Association. Towers has remained as the organization’s Secretary, while Gail Rasmussen, OEA’s current president, is currently listed as President of Our Oregon.
So it is no surprise that the organization, that has spent nearly a million of OEA and SEIU’s money electioneering during the last three election cycles – a no-no for non-profits – would take a position against a budget that is opposed by OEA.
But why does OEA want to spend down the state’s reserve?
The answer is simple: OEA affiliates are currently involved in budget negotiations in in some of the biggest school districts in the state. The more money they are able to bring into the education arena now, the better their chances are of retaining higher wages and benefits for teachers as a result of those negotiations.
If that money is held back until after the current round of negotiations are complete, it will result in a longer school year and fewer layoffs of teachers. What it won’t do is pad the salary and benefits of teachers.
As its own documents show, OEA has been highly effective at protecting the salary and benefits of its members. According to a 2010 report by the National Education Association, Oregon is currently 21st in per capita K-12 funding. However, we are ranked 46th in teacher-to-student ratio, and according to a report by the Portland Public Schools, Oregon ranks near the bottom in student instructional hours.
The bottom line for Oregonians is that the Governor, the co-chairs of Ways and Means, and the legislature have done the right thing by retaining money in the Education Stability Fund. It is self-serving and fiscally irresponsible for OEA and its surrogates like Our Oregon to insist that this money be spent now.