SALEM — Oregon State University President Ed Ray says he is confident that state lawmakers can be convinced to not sacrifice the OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend to an expected $4.4 billion deficit in the state’s General Fund budget.
“The idea of that campus closing any time in the foreseeable future is nowhere on my list of concerns. … I don’t expect it to happen,” he said, adding that he would work to make sure it didn’t. “I think we need to stay the course.”
But even as Ray and other supporters mobilize to defend Cascades from rumored budget-cutting scrutiny in the Capitol, some top state officials are refusing to rule out the elimination of OSU-Cascades. They say the budget situation is so bad — and potentially getting worse — that they have to look at everything.
Earlier this week, one of the most powerful lawmakers in Salem, Joint Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, said she feels the state can no longer afford all the institutions of higher education that it has. And on Wednesday, other state officials said that while it’s too early to know for sure, she may be right.
Rem Nivens, a spokesman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said that while the governor is a strong supporter of higher education, “if the current fiscal situation worsens, he believes we have to get creative on how we fund and manage our post-secondary education system.”
He said a key date would be May 15, when the official projected deficit figure is issued by the state economist Tom Potiowsky. That figure will guide the 2009-11 state budget, and some — including Kulongoski — feel the number could get even worse than the $4.4 billion estimate the state is currently using.
“I think we’re still looking for the May forecast to know,” Nivens said of the possibility of cutting a higher-education campus. “If the economy continues to worsen, we’re going to have to have that conversation, in terms of how we want to fund and manage our post-secondary education system.”
Similarly, House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, said the possibility of “consolidating” the higher education system to cut costs is “a legitimate discussion to have.”
He pointed out that Central Oregon has two state lawmakers, Rep. Judy Stiegler, D-Bend, and Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, on a key subcommittee of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee that plays a key role in writing the state budget.
“So the needs of Central Oregon will be well represented in that process,” Hunt said. “But the final decision is not based solely on what’s good for Central Oregon. It’s based on what’s good for students overall.”
Stiegler, the only majority-party lawmaker from Central Oregon, says her understanding from the Capitol grapevine is that the Joint Ways and Means Committee leadership may be looking at shuttering the Cascades Campus. She says she has been meeting with key lawmakers to plead for Cascades’ case and will continue doing so.
Asked for her game plan, she said she will point to Cascades’ economic impact to Central Oregon as well as that the region is under-served by higher education.
“It’s going to be something that over the next month or so that I’m going to have to pound away on,” she said.
Since the Legislature is scheduled to approve the budget by June 30, supporters of the campus are keeping one eye on the calendar as they mobilize.
On Thursday, interim Cascades Dean Becky Johnson will join Central Oregon Community College President James Middleton and Ray, the Oregon State University president, at the Bend City Club for an 11:30 a.m. discussion of higher education in Oregon.
Johnson says they intend to use that forum as well as other meetings scheduled that day to “get some momentum going” to get their message out.
The very next day, the Joint Ways and Means Committee is expected to release an outline of what the next draft budget may look like.
On April 21, Johnson said she, Ray and others will visit Salem for “OSU Day,” where they intend to make sure lawmakers have accurate information about the Bend campus’ successes and rapid enrollment growth.
Then, on April 29, the Joint Ways and Means Committee will hold a 6 p.m. hearing in Bend to take public input on the budget outline released April 17.
On Wednesday, legislative leaders learned that the hearing will be held in a potentially fortuitous location: on the site of OSU-Cascades, in Cascades Hall, the building the campus rents from Central Oregon Community College.
Stiegler said the hearing could be important to the campus’ future as “legislators do listen to what people have to say.”
Christine Coffin, a Cascades Campus spokeswoman, said that two years ago a legislative field hearing there filled a makeshift meeting area with seating for 200.
“It may be even more packed this time,” she said. “The stakes are higher.”