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Lawmakers will look at OHSU bond request

SALEM — Executives at Oregon Health & Science University are asking state lawmakers to take on $200 million in debt to help secure a massive donation from Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife.

The Knights have committed to giving OHSU $500 million for cancer research if the university can raise an equal amount from other sources within two years, bringing in a total investment of $1 billion. OHSU wants to use the money to lure high-profile scientists to conduct groundbreaking research into early detection of cancer.

"Oregon will be known as the state where premier cancer research is done," said Dr. Joe Robertson, president of OHSU. "We're known for the best pinot, and we'll be known for the best cancer research."

Robertson said the money would be sufficient to move 20 researchers and their labs to OHSU's Knight Cancer Institute, which was named for the Nike founder and his wife following a $100 million gift in 2008.

An influx of cash that large would free researchers from many of the onerous grant applications they spend time writing. Most of the money would be spent over about a decade, he said, but about $250 million would go into an endowment.

Dr. Brian Druker, director of the OHSU cancer center, developed the cancer drug Gleevec, which significantly improved cancer treatment by specifically targeting cancer cells.

"Brian Druker's vision is to apply the same technology of targeted therapy to early detection," Robertson said. "It's the same technology that's been phenomenally successful with treatment of cancer. Many cancers are detected so late that they can't be treated."

OHSU has until Feb. 4, 2016, to raise the $500 million needed to secure the Knight donation. The taxpayer money would count toward that threshold, but Robertson said he's committed to raising the full amount from private sources for a total investment of $1.2 billion.

Fundraising has already begun, Robertson said, but the amount raised won't be revealed until March.

Lawmakers return to Salem next month for a five-week session. OHSU is asking them to approve bond sales in 2016 to pay for construction of research and clinic space at the university's campus on Portland's South Waterfront.

Critics say OHSU should be spending its time collecting donations from the philanthropic community rather than lobbying state lawmakers in Salem. Because the state's debt capacity is limited, money given to OHSU is money that can't be spent on other building projects for universities, community colleges or state agencies.

"They need to get behind all the universities that need buildings, all the schools that need seismic upgrades," said Jody Wiser, director of Tax Fairness Oregon.

The university's request is substantial. Of the nearly 75 debt-back building projects lawmakers approved last year, few got more than $20 million and none got more than $100 million.

Preliminary estimates said the general fund and lottery would have capacity for an additional $310 million in debt during the current two-year budget cycle.

Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat and cancer survivor, has spoken favorably of the request.

Democrats in the House want to look into the proposal and other requests for the state to take on debt and "see if it's a good return on investment for Oregon," said Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the Democratic leader.