Clackonomics: Senators stage walkout, delay public education funding

Senator Knopp, one of the walkouts. Photo courtesy of Oregon Capital Insider.

The Oregon State 2023-24 budget was approved by the Legislative Fiscal Office’s Ways and Means Subcommittee in March. The State House voted and handed it off to the Oregon Senate for a vote and approval. Now dissenting Republican Senators in Salem are dragging their feet on the budget as they stage walkouts over unrelated issues. Governor Tina Kotek’s hands are tied until the two-thirds of the Senate votes to approve the budget.  

While the Republican minority battles the Senate majority over abortions laws and gender-affirming medical treatment, all of Oregon’s institutions are forced to wait and wonder where their funding stands. This includes Oregon’s K-12 public schools, which directly affects the state’s 17 community colleges.

“This year’s legislative session has been a roller coaster ride, and it doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon,” said Clackamas Community College President Tim Cook, in a faculty email. “A group of Senators continue to participate in a ‘walk-out’ at the capitol that is preventing bills and budgets from being passed, leaving colleges, schools, and other public institutions at risk.”

The current walk-out – which started on May 3 – is the longest in Oregon legislative history; the old record stood at just nine days. Many of Oregon’s public institutions are paid as the funds are needed, but community colleges are funded by the state at the beginning of each term, based on several different metrics. Here’s why this matters:

For Oregon’s public institutions to continue operating when a problem arises getting the funding through the House or the Senate, the Governor’s office has a

fairly simple solution. A Continuing Resolution, signed by the Governor, can allow the state to grant funds to institutions based on the last 90 days of funding received. Sounds good, right?

But that isn’t how it works for higher education. Clackamas and the 16 other community colleges around the state received funding at the beginning of spring term, so under the Continuing Resolution, the colleges are entitled to the same amount that was paid out in the last 90 days: Absolutely nothing. Currently there is no mechanism for making adjustments to this particular rule. 

The larger community colleges in Oregon, including CCC, will be fine, as they have more resources to draw from when times get lean. Clackamas has reserve funds set aside and has also made investments, anticipating budget problems like these. Smaller colleges will have to cut programs, staff and teaching faculty that CCC won’t. 

Clackamas Community College has a secret weapon, Vice President of Finance Jeff Shaffer. Shaffer found a tax credit pertaining to employee retention on the IRS books, and while filing for such a return takes time, it was well worth the research.

Last week, Shaffer hand-delivered $7 million to the college’s bank.

Thankfully, it wasn’t duffle bags of cash, Shaffer joked, “I would have been pretty nervous walking around campus with that.” Those checks could have been cut at any point in the last few months, but they arrived as the college needed them. The sum seems like a lot, but it’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the yearly financial requirements of a triple-campus community college.

The timing was great for getting this extra monetary bump, but more than likely CCC would have been fine heading into the summer term, as some costs tend to go down with a smaller student presence on campus. 

“No one on any of the budget committees is walking away disappointed,” Shaffer said.“No one is losing their job. It was a great process, you never like to see anything get cut, as it’s always painful to see anything go.” 

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Senator Art Robinson, one of the walkouts. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Capitol Insider.

Employee contracts were another issue that might have been impacted by the state.

“The associate and full-time faculty contract negotiations are about finished. Those start in January and end 150 days later, usually in mid-July. The associate faculty has accepted their contract and the negotiations for full-time faculty are almost done,” added Shaffer.

Tuition levels will be increasing slightly as well, though not as much as they could have. 

“At the last Board of Education meeting, the Board approved a $6/credit tuition increase (from $117/credit to $123/credit) with a clause that the increase will be adjusted to a $4/credit increase if we see an increase in the state’s Community College Support Fund (CCSF) above its current amount,” said Shaffer in a staff email from early May.

The Republican Senators are being fined $325 a day until the walkout ends. On June 8, The Clackamas Print reached out to both Senator Mark Meek (D-Clackamas) and Tim Knopp, (R-Bend) leader of the Oregon State Republican Caucus for comments on the walkout. There has been no answer as of June 12.

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Gabriel Lucich