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$6.55B state school budget denied

SALEM — After what one lawmaker called a “good old-fashioned legislative debate,” the state Senate on Monday rejected a $6.55 billion public school budget. 

A single Democrat, Sen. Chris Edwards of Eugene, joined 14 Republicans in voting against the measure, ensuring its failure with a 15-15 vote. 

The state’s K-12 budget is an important component in balancing the overall state budget; without it, local school districts cannot move forward and balance their books. 

Brookings-Harbor Superintendent Brian Hodge Tuesday said the impasse is not an immediate threat to his school district, which is in better financial shape than many others in Oregon.

“At this time there’s not need to panic; we’re going to go ahead with what we have planned,” Hodge said.

The Brookings-Harbor School board is expected this month to approve a $22.9 million budget for the fiscal school year of 2013-14. The budget did not call for any major cuts to the calendar year, no layoffs of teachers or staff, and no elimination of programs. 

The state’s proposed $6.55 billion budget would distribute $1 billion more to school districts. Hodge was planning to use the district’s share to reinstate some cut programs.

The impasse “will slow those efforts down,” Hodge said.

A bigger concern, he said, was the district’s declining enrollment, which matches the community’s continuing decrease in residents younger than 18.

For his school district, Sen. Edwards said, a “perfect storm” of declining enrollment, limited reserves and compressed property taxes means the proposed public school budget would still be a “cuts budget.”

“I’m not convinced it’s the best we can do,” Edwards said. 

The Eugene Democrat’s concerns were echoed by the Republicans he joined to defeat the measure. 

“Six point fifty-five billion?” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, during the debate. “Why did we run? Why did we run for the state Senate if all we were going to do was a status quo cuts budget? We can do so much more. There is no reason to settle on this number.”

But Democrats countered that the proposed budget would send $1 billion more to schools than in the previous biennium, $6.75 billion in total, combined with the $200 million in buying power from cuts already made this session to the state Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). 

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said passing the school budget is the most important step lawmakers will take this session. The school budget, he said, would “build back a robust school system Oregon used to be known for.” 

Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, said people are “tired of bake sales, and tired of growing class sizes and teacher layoffs.”

“They asked me, and they are asking us today, to stand up and vote for (the school) budget,” she said. 

The 2013 legislative session has been defined by an ongoing debate between the two parties on cutting PERS and raising taxes. Both sides said they would like to boost the K-12 budget. Both blame the other for the impasse.

Democrats said they want to see a Republican commitment to raise taxes.

At one point, a deal was on the table that would have funneled $7 billion to public schools. But partisan gridlock has all but stopped the talks. The inability to pass the school budget will likely kick up the pressure on pension and revenue talks in the coming week. 

“There is a lot of talk on why this budget is a problem, why this budget is too low; so far, I’ve seen a lot of talk, I haven’t seen much do,” said Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, who is one of the Legislature’s chief budget writers. “I haven’t actually had a serious discussion from the other side of the aisle on PERS in over five weeks,” Devlin said. 

Gov. John Kitzhaber blasted Republicans in a statement, calling it “disappointing” that Senate Republicans “squandered an opportunity to stabilize school funding.” 

The governor said “it’s inexcusable that D.C.-like gamesmanship won out over Oregon common sense.”

Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn at the end of June, but the budget stall could mean lawmakers continue into July. Constitutionally, they do not have to adjourn until July 13. 

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