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Democrats' schools budget clears House

SALEM — Democratic lawmakers made the case for increasing state revenue as the Oregon House approved two years of funding for schools Tuesday.

Democrats said their $7.3 billion budget — a 9 percent increase — is not ideal but is the best they can do without raising additional revenue, signaling a potential showdown over taxes in the coming months. Republicans said the state has plenty of money, but Democrats aren't making education a high enough priority.

"In order to make game-changing investments in our schools without drastic cuts to senior citizens, health care, without closing a prison, we're going to need significant new funding resources," said Rep. Rob Nosse, a Portland Democrat. He said Oregon's corporate taxes are too low.

Democratic Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton said the Legislature should look at devoting a portion of "kicker" tax rebates to education. Under the kicker law, economists project that taxpayers will get $350 million in tax rebates because revenue during the current two-year budget period is on track to exceed expectations from when the budget was adopted in 2013.

Echoing the concerns of education interests, Republicans decried the Democratic budget as inadequate. They said it fails to keep pace with rising costs and will require many school districts to cut their budgets, leading to larger class sizes or shorter school years.

Republicans said the Legislature could devote more money to education if they would make it a higher priority, though they did not suggest specific areas to cut.

"If we're not going to make this commitment now, when the economy is doing well in Oregon, when will we make it?" asked Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville. "When will the shift occur? When will the investment occur? If not now, when?"

Education consumes about half of the state general fund and lottery, and the money provides the bulk of funding for Oregon school districts.

Democrats say increasing funding for K-12 schools would squeeze other areas of the budget, including higher education, social services and prisons.