Simply put, more Oregonians have to be working to boost states economy

Complaining about insufficient school funding has become an annual pastime in Oregon — it occurs every time the Legislature gathers in Salem to make budget decisions.

We agree that Oregon should do a better job of getting money into classrooms, where it could reduce student-teacher ratios, create a richer learning environment and lead to better educational outcomes.

It is pointless, however, to talk about more money for schools without considering where those dollars will come from. Plainly put, unless more Oregonians are working at the best possible jobs — and thereby paying more and higher state income taxes — this state always will come up short on funds for education.

With that in mind, the most important long-term strategy for legislators isn’t simply to say that education is their top priority, but to focus on statewide economic goals that will encourage growth in the number and quality of jobs. Those jobs will increase tax collections for the state, which can then invest in an educated workforce that will attract more good employers.

The 2013 Legislature has immediate opportunities to move the economy forward by making public investments — or by adopting policies that create a better environment for growth. Among these opportunities are:

n Pressing ahead with the Columbia River Crossing, which needs action in 2013 to qualify for the federal funding that will pay for the bulk of the project. This new Interstate 5 bridge between Oregon and Washington will support nearly 2,000 construction-related jobs in the short term, but also will improve the regional economy by allowing for better movement of people, goods and services along I-5. There is substantial momentum in the Legislature to push the crossing project forward — and this is definitely the year to make it happen.

n Approving another round of transportation improvements throughout Oregon. An additional $100 million in lottery-backed bonds, if approved by the 2013 Legislature, would continue Oregon’s recent progress toward better roads, rail and marine facilities.

n Taking the new Oregon Growth Board to the next level by approving a funding stream to make the growth board permanent and to give it the ability to encourage promising private-sector ventures in Oregon.

n Remembering the economic potential of rural Oregon. The metro area should not be the main focus for economic development in this state. Agriculture, timber and other resource-based industries built Oregon’s economy in the first place, and they can be enhanced greatly if all legislators — urban and rural — understand the value of healthy rural communities. When more people are working in Oregon’s smaller communities, they are less dependent on tax dollars being shifted from more populous regions — particularly for education.

These are just a few of the economic steps required of the 2013 Legislature — and they would help lay a better economic foundation to support schools and other state services. None of this is to say, of course, that school funding cannot be improved more immediately with short-term measures, including changes to the Public Employees Retirement System.

The PERS reforms proposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber would put money back in the classroom immediately. We also are not opposed to the idea of the Legislature increasing school funding for the 2013-14 biennium beyond what Kitzhaber has suggested. Also, concepts for a tax overhaul that would give Oregon a more stable revenue base for the future are at least worth considering — perhaps as early as 2014.

Oregon, however, has talked about tax reform for just about as long as it has bemoaned its unstable financing for schools. All that talk has led to little in the way of permanent change — and that’s why a focus on the economy remains the only sure method of improving the long-term outlook for school funding.

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