Bend’s newest member of the Oregon Legislature, Republican Rep. Cheri Helt, is the chief sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the Legislature to fund K-12 education before any other budget measure may be approved. While her impulse may be good, the measure itself is not.
Helt is right when she says early approval of the secondary education budget would be a boon to school districts, which are legally bound to have their own budgets completed by June 30 each year. When lawmakers wait until near the end of a legislative session to fund education, districts are forced to guess about what their resources will be and budget accordingly.
Nor should her interest in securing K-12 funding early in the state budgeting process come as a surprise. She did go to Salem straight from eight years on the Bend-La Pine school board.
But the Legislature’s job is not simply to see that K-12 education gets the money its leadership says it needs. Rather, lawmakers work with a finite number of dollars to provide funding for everything from education to Medicaid to the Department of Human Services, which is charged with protecting Oregon’s most vulnerable children.
The Legislature’s job is a balancing act in which the needs of a wide variety of programs and the people they serve must be weighed and considered.
Lawmakers could improve the process, to be sure.
They could simply decide to begin their work in the first week of January rather than, as they did this year, wait until January is nearly over. Surely, the extra time would be enough to get their budget work done by, say, mid May.
In reality, what’s needed to get school districts and all agencies that rely on state dollars the information they need earlier is legislative discipline, not a constitutional amendment.