ASHLAND — State Treasurer Ted Wheeler Thursday is launching a 16-month campaign to win passage of a ballot measure that would fund college tuition and vocational training for low- and middle-income students with a permanent, dedicated fund.
The Oregon Opportunity Initiative on the November 2014 ballot would create no new taxes, Wheeler said in a talk Thursday to the Ashland Rotary Club. The funding source hasn't been finalized, but Wheeler said bonding would be the best mechanism to create a perpetual source of grants for students who are being priced out of higher education.
The measure would rectify the "terrible mistake" of defunding vocational education and shifting the cost of K-12 "onto the backs of college students," he said.
"It was one of the stupidest things the state ever did, to defund vocational training," he said. "Shame on all of us. It was a folly."
Wheeler framed the endowment fund as the crucial missing piece for the future stability and competitiveness of Oregon's economy.
"This is a call to action for Oregon's future vitality and health," said Wheeler. "It will make the state economically viable and competitive."
Sitting in a prime spot on the Pacific Rim, Oregon has a tremendous opportunity to manufacture goods for Asia's booming economies, he noted. However, Oregon lags in per capita wage growth and has significant hunger and poverty, he said, with 660,000 people below the poverty line.
The state is countering this situation and trying to create a more stable economy by investing in infrastructure, through the Oregon Investment Act to give small business better access to capital, and by investing in higher education through programs such as the Opportunity Initiative.
"By 2018, 70 percent of jobs will require some advanced education ... but students are struggling," Wheeler said. "Tuition went up 50 percent in one recent period. Students are finding college increasingly unattainable."
In his information gathering tours of the state, Wheeler said, "We heard the constant litany (from businesses and corporations) that, 'We feel you are not going to be able to provide us with a workforce to stay competitive.' "
The present system of Oregon Opportunity Grants, he said, provides help for only two of 10 applicants — something the proposed initiative would change.
The plan was created from meetings with educators, business people and others in tours around Oregon, with Wheeler as the prime mover.
Wheeler acknowledged he has a big job ahead, educating tax-wary voters how it works and that "it doesn't require any increase in taxes nor will it decrease taxes."
"The campaign will be a significant part of my work next year," he said.
The initiative, put on the ballot by the last Legislature, requires a vote of the people because it changes the Constitution, allowing the Legislature the power to create the endowment for student grants, he said. Lawmakers would also have the power to make it a grant or loan program and determine how much money is in it.
State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, who introduced Wheeler, said he will campaign for the initiative.
"It forces the Legislature to put money into higher education for low-income students," Bates said. "... I like his idea of bonding. ... It's investing in human capital with a permanent fund, instead of bricks and mortar."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.