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Lawmakers grill OHSU about $200 million request for cancer center

Oregon Health and Science University leaders fielded some tough questions Friday from state lawmakers about OHSU’s requested $200 million in state money for the Knight Cancer Research Center.

The university asked the state for $200 million in state bonds to build a new cancer research facility at Portland’s South Waterfront area, after Phil Knight offered to donate another $500 million to expand the existing research program bearing his family name. The catch: OHSU must raise $500 million in matching money in the next two years to get any of the money from Knight.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who was chairing an informational session on OHSU’s request before the Legislature’s joint budget panel on capital construction, questioned why OHSU needs the building on top of another 300,200-square-foot building OSHU is planning, called the Center for Health and Healing II.

“I guess I question how much more patient space does OHSU need,” Kotek said, especially in light of national concerns about health-care cost containment.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, who graduated from OHSU’s School of Dentistry, called the university’s request a “big hit” to the state general fund. Girod noted it would cost $350 million over 20 years to pay off the $200 million in bonds the university is requesting.

Girod asked why OHSU can’t issue some of the bonds itself and commit to paying them off. He also wondered how OHSU will finance day-to-day operations of the new facility, and raised fears the university will come back to the state for help with operating funds at a later date.

OHSU President Joe Robertson promised to provide more information to lawmakers, including how the program’s operations will be funded in future years. He said OHSU is supplying about $300 million for the Center for Health and Healing and other facilities, the majority of it by selling bonds the university would pay off.

Though raising $500 million in just two years is unheard-of in Oregon, Robertson sounded undaunted. “We are very confident that we will raise the $500 million,” he told the legislative panel.

He also boasted that it will be a major boon to the economy, calling it a $1.5 billion stimulus package when one adds the $1 billion in fundraising from Knight and matching money, the $200 million from the state and the $300 million supplied by OHSU funds.

That “will make a difference in Oregon’s economic landscape,” Robertson said, “similar to the successful Oregon Opportunity initiative in 2001.”

However, that initiative remains a sore point with some people. OHSU won $200 million from the Legislature in 2001 based on the premise it would foster a new biotech industry in Portland. That never materialized, though the money helped fuel OHSU’s continuing expansion.

Judging by the tough questions, some lawmakers want more information before making such a big financial commitment in a short legislative session. Robertson urged a decision in this month’s session so he can “hit the launch button on March 1,” to commence planning the new building at South Waterfront.

Steve Law can reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Twitter: @SteveLawTrib