SALEM — Oregon State University-Cascades’ construction funding adventures over the past two sessions of the Oregon Legislature had a happy ending.
After initially being short-changed with just $9.5 million in bonds for 2017, the Bend campus received a surprising $39 million in 2018 to go toward a second academic building.
Now, it’s a new year, with a new session and a new Legislature.
Atop OSU-Cascades’ 2019 legislative wish list is $12 million in bonds to help fund a Student Success Center.
It’s envisioned as the hub for student activities and counseling at a campus that will grow to 128 acres.
The story line is again starting with turbulence. OSU-Cascades faces two challenges.
First, Gov. Kate Brown’s two-year budget proposal left funding for the state’s seven public universities essentially flat, but with costs rising, university officials said tuition could go up substantially if the Legislature doesn’t come up with additional funds.
“Our students are telling us that they and their families cannot afford such increases,” said Steve Clark, Oregon State’s vice president for university relations and marketing.
Second, the Student Success Center at OSU-Cascades was not included in Brown’s 2019 university capital construction budget proposal, which primarily targets renovations at the state’s older campuses.
Brown asked that $225 million in bonds be set aside for additional projects to be determined during the 2020 legislative session. But OSU-Cascades’ projects are ranked near the bottom of the priority list of major university projects. The Student Success Center is 10th, while land development at the Bend campus is last on the list at 14th.
Endi Hartigan, spokesperson for the Higher Education Coordinating Committee, confirmed the rankings were used in recommendations to Brown for her 2019 budget proposal.The ranking could change next year.
“The majority of decisions on university capital should be reserved until 2020, after the HECC strategic planning for capital can be completed,” Hartigan said.
A governor’s budget proposal is just that — a proposal. It often goes through extensive revisions by the Legislature before it is passed.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, played a key role in working with Brown to get the $39 million for OSU-Cascades in 2018. He counsels patience.
“We are early in session, and I have talked with the governor and her staff about the importance of OSU-Cascades funds,” Knopp said. “I’m also talking with fellow legislators. These funding decisions will happen late in session, and I will continue to advocate for them as top priorities.”
Top university officials have banded together to offer a funding counter-proposal.
It calls for a $186 million Public University Support Fund. They say the money would head off major tuition increases and keep students from dropping out because of heavier financial burdens. That’s a key factor for OSU-Cascades, where officials say 43 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants, a top indicator of needs-based financial aid. The universities also would like to see increased funding for the Oregon Opportunity Grant program, which is targeted at students from low-income families.
The key question for the alternative plan is where the money would come from. The Oregon Constitution requires a balanced budget. Any money allocated to universities would have to come from tax increases or by shifting funds for other spending priorities. Brown’s budget proposal needs taxes to pay for increases in K-12 education and maintaining health care for the poor.
To get the Student Success Center funding, OSU-Cascades is joining with the other universities to ask that the 2020 university capital construction bonding be increased to $285 million. The extra $60 million would be enough to ensure the Bend campus projects are included despite being at the tail end of the priority list.
Oregon State has requests in for improvements at its main campus in Corvallis. A 10-year capital forecast recently approved by the university board of trustees highlights the need for the Bend campus.
“We have a goal of serving 3,000 to 5,000 students at OSU-Cascades and know that building out the campus will be essential,” said Clark, the OSU spokesman.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, said it was important to make sure the timeline for the state’s fastest-growing university is kept on track.
“We have to make sure there are enough options for students from the eastern side of the state to attend a four-year university,” Helt said.
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, noted that OSU-Cascades students were helping pay for the Student Success Center.
“The students took the initiative to implement a $50 fee increase that would raise $5 million,” Zika said. “This is a phenomenal first step and inspiring to see students taking the initiative to construct this desired student center. Now, it’s up to the Legislature and governor.”
Becky Johnson, the vice president of OSU-Cascades, said patience — and vigilance — were needed for the long haul through the budget process.
“Delaying the capital funding until the 2020 legislative session causes some uncertainty, but would not impact the timeline of the Student Success Center,” Johnson said. “It’s important that the Legislature reserves bonding capacity for university capital projects and does not allocate all their funds in the 2019 session.”
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