One measure on the ballot in November would ensure public universities have the right to make investments, something legislation passed three years ago was originally supposed to do.

In 2013, legislation passed allowing universities within the Oregon University System, including Oregon State University, to create governing boards. The same legislation, Senate Bill 270, also gave those universities the power to manage their finances and make investments.

But there is a question of whether the rights granted to public universities in Senate Bill 270 violate the state constitution: Article XI, section 6 prohibits the state from owning stock. The question is, could public universities be considered the state?

Measure 95 would ensure public universities could invest in stock by amending the state constitution. The universities involved would be added to the list of exceptions to Article XI, section 6. Public universities affected include OSU, University of Oregon, Eastern Oregon University, Oregon Institute of Technology, Portland State University, Southern Oregon University and Western Oregon University.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who was chairman of the Education Committee, has been involved in overseeing House Joint Resolution 203, which became Measure 95. Hass also oversaw the construction of Senate Bill 270, as well as another senate bill that gave universities more autonomy, and Senate Bill 81, the free community college bill.

“It’s primarily a technical fix to one of the restructuring bills we passed,” Hass said of Measure 95. “The fix was part of the intent all along.”

Hass explained Measure 95 “just clarifies” what Senate Bill 270 was meant to do: allow universities to make investments. And he said there aren’t any opponents of the measure. No politicial action committees are registered for or against the measure.

“All of this was a way of helping them become a little more free and hopefully putting the brakes on tuition,” Hass said of public universities.

It used to be that OSU was really no different from the Department of Motor Vehicles, Hass explained, which is why the Legislature decided to change public universities’ legal status.

“Most of this was pretty technical, dull stuff that didn’t generate a lot of news stories,” Hass said. “But if you’re a CFO, this was a major change.”

At a certain point after Senate Bill 270 passed, Hass said, state legal counsel questioned whether the bill allowed universities to do something that actually violates the state constitution. That’s when legislators decided to make an amendment to the constitution that would clear things up and allow universities to make investments, which Hass said could help keep down tuition.

Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, worked closely with Hass on the resolution that became Measure 95.

He agreed: allowing public universities to make investments could help hold down the cost of tuition.

“The money that comes in now, they can invest in equities and securities that can make a better return on investment than letting it sit in a non-interest-building account,” Johnson said.

Investments universities make would have to be financially secure, Johnson said.

“It’s not like one or two people can be playing with the university’s money,” he said, adding such records would be available to the public.

Johnson said the issue Measure 95 addresses isn’t scintillating, but it’s important.

He and Hass both expect voters will pass the measure, of which they haven’t seen any real opposition.

“There was a whole school of thought as to, ‘Do we really need to do this?’” Hass said, but for the most part, legislators agreed it’s better to address the question.

Johnson said if legislators could have foreseen this challenge to Senate Bill 270, they would have made language clearer to begin with.

“Legislation is not a perfect science,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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