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Higher ed budgets 'inadequate,' says House Speaker Jeff Merkley

SALEM — House Speaker Jeff Merkley said Wednesday the budgets for higher education and community colleges proposed by the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee are inadequate.

"There is a tremendous sense on both sides of the aisle that we must do a lot more for higher education and community colleges," he told reporters during a media briefing.

Added Merkley, "And I share those sentiments."

There are some caveats, the speaker warned. "We either have to take away from other programs, or fill in on the revenue side," he said.

The most likely option waiting in the wings is an increase in the corporate minimum tax. The current minimum payment is $10, set back in the 1930s.

Because of the "super majority" requirement to pass tax bills, Democrats would need six Republican votes to pass the tax hike. The GOP minority had embraced the idea earlier, but then pulled back.

When Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, and Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, unveiled a budget framework, the amounts recommended for post-secondary schools drew groans from education advocates, including Rogue Community College President Peter Angstadt and Mary Cullinan, president of Southern Oregon University.

Gov. Kulongoski had proposed $483 million for community colleges. The co-chairs recommended $458 million. The colleges had sought $529 million. A capital construction request for $87 million was slashed to $6 million.

Higher education took its biggest hit in requests for new construction and maintenance — from $325 million recommended by the governor to Schrader and Nolans' $50 million. The four regional colleges also had submitted a $9 million request for retention and counseling programs that fell to $2 million.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, is chairman of the House Education Committee and a player in the education budget debate.

"We're in a world of hurt with both SOU and Rogue," Buckley said. His solution is to pass an indexed corporate minimum tax with the proceeds dedicated to higher education.

Both Merkley and Buckley said several business groups that were worried about attracting skilled employees have been willing to sit down and discuss the corporate minimum.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at jepsen34@open.org.