The Legislature passed a bill Wednesday making Oregon higher education a quasi-autonomous organization — not a state agency — with new powers to control its own revenues, spending, insurance and legal issues without having to run big decisions through lawmakers.

The Legislature passed a bill Wednesday making Oregon higher education a quasi-autonomous organization — not a state agency — with new powers to control its own revenues, spending, insurance and legal issues without having to run big decisions through lawmakers.

The bill, which becomes law at the first of next year, merges state universities and community colleges under an Education Coordinating Commission with members appointed by the governor.

The new structure will allow schools to keep millions in interest earnings from tuition — and buy their own health and risk insurance — but it probably won't lead to lower tuition costs for students.

"Right out of the gate, we'll save several million from health insurance," said Diane Saunders, spokeswoman for the Oregon University System in Eugene.

"It will control costs and revenues, but I wouldn't want to say it will control tuition."

Each university has always "captured" and held tuition money in its own pot, but under the new system schools will hold onto interest earnings, said Craig Morris, vice president for finance and administration at Southern Oregon University.

SOU, he adds, has a year to get risk and health insurance or become self-insuring — and will "rewrite purchasing structures, invest money through our own internal bank" and control legal representation, instead of having to use the state attorney general's office.

"It's our hope to control some costs more efficiently, being out from under the umbrella of the state," said Morris. "It will take two or three years to accomplish."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.