- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Roughly 1,000 unionized government workers flocked to the state Capitol on Tuesday demanding that lawmakers boost business taxes and funding to schools before adjourning the 2017 legislative session, which in its final weeks remains hamstrung by gridlock over a $1.4 billion deficit.

As labor unions’ “Oregon Can’t Wait” rally was taking place outside, a bipartisan panel of 23 House and Senate lawmakers that handles the state budget was inside the building advancing an $8.2 billion K-12 education budget for the 2017-19 budget cycle. The state’s largest school funding package to date now heads to the Senate floor for its first major vote.

Although still subject to change, the package gives schools 11 percent more money than they have in the budget that ends June 30, and is also $188 million more than what schools asked for to keep services going at current levels. Still, some educators say they need at least another $200 million to avoid teacher layoffs and other cuts.

Before the Ways and Means meeting, some rally participants lined the capitol hallways chanting “8.2 just won’t do” outside the hearing room as lawmakers entered. A smaller group with the Democratic Socialists of America was quickly removed from the meeting when the noisy material of their life-size banner saying “No Toxic Budget! People Over Profit” caused disruptions.

Committee members like Republican Sen. Alan DeBoer said they were “offended” by the hallway demonstrations, and also defensive of the work they did to raise education funding despite a shortfall and no new tax revenue.

“This budget is sound … it is certainly significantly hundreds of millions of dollars more than the governor recommended,” said Sen. Rod Monroe, a Democrat and educator for more than 50 years. “This is a significant budget … we oughta be applauded, not jeered.”

In dollar figures, the 11 percent budget increase equates to an $830 million funding bump, almost a third of which stems from the rise in Public Employee Retirement System costs to school districts while the rest stems from teacher compensation increases and other costs such as special education.

By comparison, the $8.2 billion two-year education package is coincidentally the same amount of money lawmakers want to raise over 10 years for transportation through various consumer tax hikes and fees; the proposed $830 million increase to education is almost the same increase in PERS costs to all state and local agencies in the same biennium.

The $8.2 billion figure represents the state’s share of the K-12 budget, known as the State School Fund, the biggest source of funding for school districts that comes mostly from personal income and business taxes. Another $4 billion mostly from property taxes will also go to schools, bringing total education dollars to $12.2 billion for the biennium.

Oregon’s education budget has also come under scrutiny in recent weeks. Per-pupil spending, more than $13,000, and teacher compensation are both well above national averages, while high school graduation rates are near bottom-lowest in the nation and classroom sizes among the largest.

Democrats say adequate funding is the only way to improve Oregon’s education system, although the state also has little control over how school districts ultimately spend the money it gives them, which has drawn criticism from Republicans like DeBoer.

“I hope that does something for class sizes because we continue to pour money and our class sizes continue to increase,” DeBoer said during the meeting.

Sen. Richard Devlin, a Democrat and co-chair of Ways and Means, and several of his colleagues promised an $8.4 billion-education budget if and when new revenue becomes available. He also expressed the same sentiments about the demonstrations.

“I’m not happy to be casting this vote, but … without that work, we would’ve been significantly less than 8.2 and I wish the people in the hall would realize that,” Devlin said.

The rally outside the building was still ongoing after the Ways and Means vote, and among the public speakers was Kathy Wai, who was elected to the North Clackamas School Board last month.

“I did not run for school board to maintain the status quo in Oregon and witness devastating budget cuts - if we aren’t willing to invest in our students properly what sort of state are we?” Wai said.

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