More than 15 people spoke Wednesday and dozens more wore T-shirts and stickers to support keeping Oregon State University-Cascades Campus open in spite of a $4.4 billion state budget shortfall.
“OSU-Cascades has done something six prior institutions were not able to do: excite me about getting my bachelor’s degree, while making an impact in my community,” said Bjorn Peterson, 27. “We need Cascades because of the message it sends. … That you’re committed to growth in Central Oregon, that we’re here to do more than run your ski lifts and make drinks and clean your condos.”
Students, local government members and concerned citizens turned out in force to support the OSU-Cascades Campus, but speakers brought up dozens of other issues in the hearing, including the importance of supporting local school districts, disabled and mental health services, and county fairs. Some traveled hours to attend the event.
OSU-Cascades Dean Becky Johnson said the well-being of the area depends on the university campus.
“In 20 years, we will not regret having a campus here in Central Oregon,” she said.
About 550 people came to the hearing and 77 people testified at the event, held in Cascades Hall. The hearing was a stop on the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee’s statewide tour to gather public input on how to deal with the budget shortfall, currently projected at $4.4 billion over the next two years. The deficit, roughly 30 percent, could result in cuts to all levels of state government, including the possible closure of OSU-Cascades. With the main room filled, others gathered outside to watch the hearing on televisions.
“We will try to keep in mind that when we make a cut, what the consequences are, not just in terms of balancing the budget, but the consequences five, 10 and 15 years down the road,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
“It’s obvious, the impact of the Cascades Campus and its strong relationship with Central Oregon Community College. That was emphasized in a very effective way. And there are many other important programs that impact people across the state.”
A.J. Nelson, a student at COCC who will graduate this spring with her associate’s degree, said she plans to attend OSU-Cascades and needs the campus to remain open for her to avoid immense student loans. “I plan to graduate with a degree in general science and go on to become a pediatric dentist,” she said. “It is important OSU-Cascades remains here, not only for the community, but for myself personally to aid me in pursuing my career.”
Other people turned up to explain their concerns about the 2009-11 budget. Several people asked the committee to add funding to the Attorney General’s Office to support enforcement of civil rights and environmental laws. Gina McClard, an officer of the Deschutes County Democrats, said civil rights enforcement is a big deal in Central Oregon.
“We have ADA noncompliant buildings, sidewalks, public and private buildings,” McClard said, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act. “We have hotels, stores and restaurants that turn away disabled people who show up with service animals. Less of this would happen if we have a civil rights division.”
Other speakers asked the committee to continue supporting OSU’s extension services in the area, as well as fire protection. John Morgan, a resource manager for Ochoco Lumber Co., said he was worried what proposed cuts to forest programs would do in wildfire season.
“As a private landowner I’m very concerned,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of fuels and dry weather and dry climates, and those add to the fire risk and then catastrophic fire events occur, and it wipes out our resources. They’re very expensive to fight, and they’re very expensive to reforest.”
Among the hundreds who turned up to speak about the budget were several recovering drug addicts, who told of programs they say are vital to keeping their lives in order. Jennifer Bankhead, who attends COCC and who described herself as a former methamphetamine addict, said an important part of her sobriety was sending her son to MountainStar Family Relief Nursery, a local nonprofit providing day care and other services for families in need. The nonprofit receives state funding.
“Without MountainStar there would be nowhere for Anthony to go,” she said of her 2-year-old son. “It makes it possible for someone like me to stay drug-free.”
Buckley said it was comments like those that made the committee’s job so important.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep these state services going,” he said.
The committee will next head to Klamath Falls and Ashland before holding a hearing in Eugene on Friday.