The future of a $300 million Oregon ballot measure hangs in the balance as lawmakers wrestle with how to close a big budget shortfall.
Measure 98 passed last November with 66 percent of the vote. It calls for investing $800 per Oregon high school student for three purposes: career education, college preparation and dropout prevention.
Legislators generally support programs like those, which hold promise in potentially boosting Oregon's graduation rate of about 75 percent. Lawmakers also tend to honor voter-approved initiatives. But the measure's cost is also viewed as a big part of the $1.6 billion budget shortfall.
A work group has met since early March, but it focused more on trying to clarify technical aspects of the bill and possible implementation flexibility, rather than on how much to spend. Its report suggested making three sets of changes to the initiative voters approved, including:
- Requiring school districts submit four-year plans for how Measure 98 funds would be used (the initiative originally required "biennial plans")
- Allowing school districts to invest in two (rather than all three) of the measure's priority areas depending on how much money they receive
- Allowing up to 15 percent of money received to go toward eighth grade programs in one or more of the three focus areas (the original measure focuses exclusively on high school)
The work group's efforts have the support of the initiative's principle backers, Stand For Children, a non-profit with substantial corporate support.
"The work group on Measure 98 proposed a thoughtful plan to increase flexibility for smaller districts while maintaining the integrity of the Measure," said Stand's executive director Toya Fick.
The heart of the work group's effort appears in House Bill 2246, which advanced out of committee ahead of this week's deadline.
This week, a bill in the Senate died aimed at maintaining the priorities of Measure 98 but without the "$800 per high school student" funding floor. But Senate Bill 353 could return, or the sentiments behind it, judging by comments from the chair of the Senate Education Committee Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, made to the Eugene Register-Guard.
“I truly believe that until we get a revenue package and some funding, we shouldn’t fund any of 98,” Roblan said.
Critics of the measure also include the state's largest teachers' union, the Oregon Education Association, whose officials have called Measure 98 an "unfunded mandate."
The House bill that advanced ahead of this week's legislative deadline maintains the "$800 per high school student" funding language. But Fick, with Stand For Children is concerned adequate funding of the measure is still a big question mark in the bigger budget debate.
"The most recent budget proposal would fund Measure 98 at $198 million, about a third less than what is called for in the measure," Fick said. "With more money in the budget than ever before, and less resources than we need to adequately meet the needs of our state, it is clearly time to get serious about a comprehensive revenue and spending reform package."
Measure 98’s cost is likely to draw scrutiny for months, as final budget talks heat up.
But implementation has to move at the same time, if schools can expect to have the money in hand to help fund programs in the upcoming school year. The Oregon Department of Education plans to tell school districts in May how to apply for Measure 98 grants — even though lawmakers are still working on changes.