Aim for the middle

Adequate higher education funding depends on compromise in Salem

Lopsided votes in the Oregon House are another step toward reversing years of declining state support for higher education, but the increased funding is still not enough. Lawmakers should compromise on public employee pension savings and tax increases and restore more funding.

House members voted 48-12 Wednesday to approve an 8 percent increase for universities and 58-0 in favor of a 14-percent boost for community colleges. The budgets now go to the Senate.

The increases are good news after a long decline in state support, but university officials say they still will need to raise tuition to make ends meet unless lawmakers can come up with more money. The levels approved Wednesday are still below the levels in 2007, even though enrollment has grown.

There is a proposal on the table from Gov. John Kitzhaber that would make further reductions in Public Employee Retirement System spending and add some modest tax increases, but lawmakers have not been able to agree.

Meanwhile, Oregon's higher education system continues to lag behind much of the country, placing an undue burden on students and their families, who face annual increases in tuition. Oregon ranks 44th in the nation in per-student funding for higher education.

The state general fund provided more than 74 percent of higher education funding in 1990. In the current budget, the general fund contributes just 27.3 percent, while the share coming from resident tuition has more than doubled.

This is unacceptable in an economy that favors workers with college degrees — not to mention a state that has declared it an official goal to have 40 percent of residents with at least a four-year degree and 40 percent with at least a two-year degree by 2025.

Kitzhaber invited legislative leaders to the governor's mansion for a series of meetings in an attempt to reach a deal on PERS reform and tax increases, but the meetings ended in failure.

Republicans want more PERS cuts than lawmakers have so far enacted. Democrats want increased tax revenue. Both parties say they want more funding for K-12 and for higher education.

The answer seems simple. The GOP must give up their absolute opposition to more taxes, and Democrats must stop protecting their public employee supporters by refusing to consider any more PERS cuts.

It's called compromise, and it's how things get done. At least it used to be.

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