In Oregon, Kitzhaber Proposes Three Funding Amendments

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Veering from an earlier push for broad changes to the way Oregon pays for its schools, Gov. John Kitzhaber recently unveiled a modest set of proposed ballot initiatives designed to shore up education funding without raising taxes.

The three-pronged plan, which the Democratic governor hopes to place on the November 2000 ballot, addresses the stability, equity, and adequacy of school funding in the state through proposed constitutional amendments. Supporters contend that the amendments would help mend a faulty school finance system, even if they don't include the radical changes some had hoped for.

"It's clearly headed in the right direction," said Benjamin Canada, the superintendent of the 58,000-student Portland district. "There's still more work to be done. But this forces everyone in the state to look at a model that says what quality education looks like and how we're going to pay for it."

Planning for the Future

Much of the debate over the governor's plan stems from his proposal for a rainy-day fund that the state could tap when income-tax proceeds--the state's primary funding source for schools--take a downturn. The fund would draw from existing revenue sources, including lottery proceeds and surplus income tax, or excess tax collections known as "kicker" funds.

Under current state law, when income-tax revenues exceed state projections, they are returned to taxpayers in the form of checks in December. This year, the average taxpayer will receive about $80.

So while Mr. Kitzhaber is not explicitly raising taxes to pay for his plan, he is still asking voters to give up money they would otherwise get, said James Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland.

"That's an $80 check at Christmas season," Mr. Moore said. "People talk about it here like 'It's your money.' That's a very easy message to counter [the proposal] with."

But without a safety net in place, Oregon schools could face severe cuts during an economic downturn, Mr. Kitzhaber argued in a Sept. 9 speech detailing the plan. "We cannot afford to compromise the success of a generation of Oregon children during the next recession," Mr. Kitzhaber said. "We have the resources in this economy to create such a fund, my tax committee endorsed the concept, and it would be irresponsible not to proceed."

Lawmakers in the Republican-majority legislature counter that increases in school funding should come through redirected resources, not increased government spending. "If we really want to fund education, we should be willing to sacrifice other programs to do it," said Harvey Mathews, an education policy advisor to Speaker of the House Lynn Snodgrass.

Equity and Adequacy

A second proposed constitutional amendment would direct $50 million over two years to equalize funding levels between school districts. Under it, property-poor districts that raised property taxes to pay for school improvements would receive extra money from the state to provide revenues equal to a similar tax increase in a better-off district.

The final proposal would require the legislature to provide funding for schools at a level deemed sufficient for them to meet state education standards. Or, if lawmakers are unable to meet the funding requirement, they would be required to outline the reasons before the close of the legislative session.

The legislature recently budgeted $4.81 billion over the next two years for the state's 573,000 students. Gov. Kitzhaber had requested a $4.95 billion budget, and said his third proposed amendment was partly a response to a session of the legislature that "had within its grasp the means to fully fund schools--and chose not to."

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Page 14

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as In Oregon, Kitzhaber Proposes Three Funding Amendments
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