An estimated 300 people packed the Springfield City Hall Council Chambers on Thursday, April 23 for a public hearing with members of the Oregon Legislature Joint Ways and Means Committee.
More than 50 people signed up to speak to the committee chairs about funding for their areas of concern. Represented were speakers for the disabled, the elderly, the deaf and blind, the prison system, legal aid, adult foster care, K-12 and higher education and more.
A few speakers complained about the “kicker” law, which results in tax rebates for taxpayers when Oregon state tax collections exceed expectations by two percent. This year Oregonians stand to receive $350 million in “kicker” rebates, or an average $150 state tax liability reduction per taxpayer, after the two-year budget cycle ends in July.
Those who spoke about the “kicker” want the money to go instead to public organizations.
Speakers for education
Several education administrators and students asked for $755 million for universities and $550 million for community colleges. Currently, the committee co-chairs have allocated $535 million for Oregon’s 17 community colleges. The increase could mean $830,000 more annually for Lane Community College, said Lane president Mary Spilde.
In a tearful plea, LCC student body president Malisa Ratthasing spoke of “… horror stories that other students face just to navigate their higher education.”
“I have heard of a student who donates plasma regularly to pay for school,” she said, adding that countless students can’t afford money for food or laundry.
“I have my own mother wanting to take her own life, so that I can get through school debt-free,” she said. “Seeing her every morning is a constant reminder that it is a privilege to see her, and I don’t know if I will see her tonight, tomorrow or in two years when I graduate.”
Ratthasing shared that she, like so many other students at Lane, struggle to stay in college and stay afloat financially. “I don’t know how much more I have to give up, how much more other students have to share their own narratives, how much more they have to sacrifice, how much more they have to share to prove that we are worth it.”
Bethel school district superintendent, Colt Gill said students aren’t getting what they deserve. “I went to school in Oregon, and it’s not the same system we had then,” he said. “It’s not what Oregon taxpayers or our parents and grandparents did for us. We had strong schools. We were the envy of other states at one time.”
Oregon students have the second highest class sizes in the nation and one of the shortest school years according to Gill. “Our kids receive a full year’s less education for first to twelfth grade than the national average,” he said.
“During my time as an education advocate, I’ve seen our school years get shorter and our class sizes become enormous,” said Beth Gerot, Eugene school district 4J board member. She went on to say that schools have seen an increase in special needs and student diversity.
Higher expectations are being placed on teachers and administrators to meet state and federal mandates she said, adding that principals work as bus monitors.
Board chair for Fern Ridge school district and University of Oregon faculty member Andrea Larson said “We’ve got to fix this. We’ve got to do something about the kicker.” Larson called for educating citizens about public finance “… so that they understand why it is so important to give up a few hundred dollars in their pockets for the good of our state.”
Nina Johnston, mother of seven and assistant manager for an Oregon supported living program facility, said she has to work 60 to 80 hours a week to barely scrape by. “My husband stays home with the five year old twins that we have because it’s cheaper for him not to have an income than it is to pay for daycare for them,” she said.
Johnston spoke of her responsibilities as a disability services provider, saying that wages are too low. She called for a significant wage increase so that she, and others like her, can continue to provide quality care to residents.
Shannon Taggart, representing the American Cancer Society, asked for increased funding for preventing tobacco use and for screening women for breast and cervical cancer.
Eugene resident James Jacobson asked the committee chairs to focus on increasing revenues. “The people of Oregon are counting on you to find ways of being creative, courageous and imaginative about revenue,” he said, adding that Oregon has the lowest corporate tax rate in the nation.
He asked the committee to get the department of revenue to collect $200 million in taxes that are owed. Jacobson then called for an increase in tobacco tax from $275 million to $325 million and asked for reform to the “kicker.”
Roxanne Hazen, senior living community provider in Cottage Grove, said she keeps seniors out of hospitals and the ER, which, she said, saves Oregon a lot of money “… but the price of operating an adult foster home keeps going up,” she said. “In the past three years my utilities [bills] alone have doubled. My salary has not.”
Hazen said that she has been operating in the red for the past three years, while working full time doing three shifts herself. “We need to pay providers fairly for the work they do, or we won’t be able to provide our most vulnerable with the loving and healthy care they deserve,” she said.
The meeting went overtime, so not all who signed up to speak got the chance.