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Portland State University may launch initiative petition for regional payroll tax

President Wiewel says PSU is exploring options for dedicated revenue


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland State University President Wim Wiewel says the Oregon Legislature doesn't give public universities enough money.

Portland State University might make a bid for regional tax money with an initiative petition drive for the November 2016 election, President Wim Wiewel revealed this week to the Portland Tribune.

The idea, Wiewel says, comes after years of not getting enough out of Salem.

“I would much rather have a statewide solution, but I have been fighting for seven years now,” he says, acknowledging that the state boosted funding to Oregon's seven public universities by $30 million this biennium, but it was $55 million short of what they asked for. “It’s still not anywhere near enough for what we need.”

Wiewel argues that to make up for inflation and a bigger student body and to improve offerings, the universities actually needed closer to $1 billion.

“We knew that we would get laughed out of Salem if we asked for that, so we didn’t go there,” he says.

Using the TriMet payroll tax as a template, PSU officials say their early drafts of the plan would raise about $35 million per year with a payroll tax rate of about a tenth of a percent to be paid by corporations and, possibly, the self-employed. The money would be earmarked for scholarships and programs to aid low-income Portland-area residents, Wiewel says.

“All of the money would be used to help students from the Metro area get access to a college degree,” he says, postulating that 40 percent would go to scholarships, 40 percent to advisors and financial aid counselors and the rest to hiring faculty.

In order to create a regional district, the governing body for the new tax would be the Metro regional government, which covers Multnomah County and the urbanized portions of Washington and Clackamas counties.

'Robust conversation'

Metro, for its part, has been hands-off.

“I am aware PSU officials have come through the building talking to various folks,” says regional government spokesman Jim Middaugh, however: “There has been no dialogue at the Metro Council level about accepting that or advancing that as a Metro referral.”

Wiewel says councilors have been privately supportive of the measure, but want to see how much political support there is for it.

“Basically, what they said is: ‘Show us that people are supportive of this,’ ” says Wiewel, which is why they are exploring a signature drive beginning early next year to bring it to the ballot — with or without Metro’s official support.

One powerful political figure is decidedly not supportive. Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) was the first to speak publicly about PSU’s strategy on her Oct. 9 radio show, the Oregon Capital Insider reported. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Sen. Betsy Johnson

Johnson says she called up Wiewel personally to talk about it.

“He and I had a rather robust conversation,” she says, but notes that she doesn’t think the proposal got any traction at Metro. “Apparently, there’s not much enthusiasm for this.”

Johnson objects to the proposal for cutting other universities and Portland Community College out of the deal and for adding cost to businesses.

“I have no idea what this would do to Intel,” she says. “When does the cumulative effect of all of this become so burdensome that you can’t look somebody in the eye and ask for more?”

Biting the apple

The seeds for PSU’s move were sown back in 2007 when University of Oregon’s then-President Dave Frohnmeyer proposed a split from the Oregon University System in the hopes of being able to raise money in ways state agencies couldn’t. In 2013, the legislature allowed universities to become public corporations with their own boards of trustees, much as Oregon Health and Science University has been since 1995. University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University all officially started their autonomous boards July 1, 2014. Today, all seven public Oregon universities are self-governed but overseen by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC).

Wiewel says the new tax is a way for the university to get more “bites at the apple.”

He laments PSU’s relative lack of deep-pocketed donors compared to UO and OSU and fewer revenue streams than Portland Community College.

The UO recently finished a $2 billion charity drive, OSU finished its $1 billion campaign in January; PSU is in the beginning, silent phase of a $300 million campaign.

PCC has state operating funds, state capital funds, tuition, capital bond funds and property taxes. PSU has state operating and capital funds, in addition to tuition.

“They have five bites at the apple; we only have three,” he says.

Wiewel, who himself is from Amsterdam by way of Baltimore, Md., says Portland has been fortunate to be able to import skilled workers based on its “cool” reputation. But it needs to offer more opportunities for higher education and skilled work to its local population, who are getting priced out.

“If we don’t educate that population,” he says, “this region is going to be in a world of hurt.”


Shasta Kearns Moore
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