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PSU supporters push ahead with Metro-wide payroll tax plan

One-tenth-of-1-percent plan may still have uphill battle

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Portland State University matriculates about 28,000 students annually, but officials say the cost of education is much too high. A proposed payroll tax would go primarily to a regional scholarship program. Portland State University supporters aim to find out how valuable the university is to local voters with an initiative petition to raise new taxes filed Friday, Jan. 29.

The PSU-backed citizen campaign would create a 0.1 percent payroll tax on employers in the Metro district, which includes most of the tri-county urban Portland area. That means a $50,000 annual salary would cost businesses another $50.

Chief Petitioner Peter Zuckerman says the $35 million to $40 million expected to be generated from such a tax is desperately needed to offset lagging and insufficient support from the Oregon Legislature.

“College affordability matters to everybody in the tri-county region,” Zuckerman argues. “It means skilled and capable co-workers, a more resilient economy, money for vital services .... Investing in our workforce protects our jobs and our property values.”

Zuckerman heads a nascent citizen committee called Affordable College Now, which will spearhead the effort to get around 40,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Currently called the Local College Affordability Measure, the payroll tax would not lower tuition in general. However, at least 50 percent of the revenues would go to scholarships to residents of the Metro district. Supporters estimate this would benefit approximately 8,000 students. PSU currently has about 28,000.

About a quarter of the revenues would be dedicated to boosting the number and quality of teachers and class offerings. Another quarter would go to counselors and tutors trained in lowering dropout rates. Somewhere in there, a final 3 percent would go to emergency situations, such as students who have a sudden and documented shift in financial fortunes.

The payroll tax would sunset in eight years if not renewed by voters.

Zuckerman says accountability measures, such as annual graduation rate reports, are also in the measure. Currently, PSU estimates most of its 30 to 40 percent dropout rate is due to financial reasons, he says.

“PSU is facing a college affordability crisis,” Zuckerman says. “People who work hard and want a better life used to be able to attend college, but now it’s much more expensive.”

The measure may face a hard sell at the ballot box, though. Portland Public Schools is hoping to put a major bond measure on the same ballot. Metro councilors have yet to come out in support. And business interests may balk at the idea of a new tax, no matter how small.

PSU's average tuition for undergraduate Oregon residents is $6,741, with the additional costs of attendance estimated to bring the total annual cost to $23,349.

See previous coverage:

Portland State University may launch initiative petition for regional payroll tax

PSU moves forward with payroll tax petition plans

Shasta Kearns Moore
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