GOP Fights for School Funding… By Taking Money Away From Low-Income Retirees

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What did it take to turn Oregon Republican legislators into apparent champions for school funding? Figuring out they could take billions away from low-income seniors.

Capitol8Monday morning, the K-12 schools budget came up for a vote in the Oregon Senate. The floor session was the scene of what–on the surface–appears to be a breathtaking reversal by Senate Republicans on school funding. Apparently, Republicans now believe that the sky should be the limit for K-12 funds–except that they’ve voted to hold the K-12 budget hostage in an attempt to force more cuts to retirees’ pensions.

In the lead up to the vote, Republican Senators stood up to pound their fists for more K-12 funding–saying that the proposed $6.55 billion (plus $200 million in pension cuts to retirees) isn’t enough. They quoted a long list of familiar facts: Oregon has the third-largest class sizes, thousands of teacher layoffs, school closures, shorter school years, etc. Republicans know these stats well, because they’ve been used against them by schools advocates for years.

But now, the GOP caucus is trying to position itself as the only champions for school funding. This is an absolute sea change for legislative Republicans. In previous years, their position on K-12 funding has been somewhere between “We’re already throwing too much money away on our schools” and “Meh, it’s fine.” And in every recent case, they’ve staunchly rejected any proposal to increase school funds by raising revenue (or cutting tax breaks) for the wealthy.

In 2012, the Oregon Republican Party endorsed a No vote on Measure 85, which reformed the corporate kicker by putting kicker funds into K-12 classrooms. They found themselves on the wrong side of a 60-40% vote margin.

In 2011, then-Republican House Leader Kevin Cameron said his caucus was happy with a $5.7 billion budget for K-12 schools–nearly $1 billion less than the current proposed K-12 budget. Republicans weren’t exactly burning up the capitol demanding more money for schools. Quite the opposite, in fact. And that was when Republicans held half the power in the House.

In 2009/2010, Republicans worked overtime to oppose the bills that became Measures 66 & 67, two bills that provided $733 million in funding for schools and other critical services by raising taxes on big corporations and the richest 2%. They even voted against raising the $10 corporate minimum tax. When they were asked to make a choice between better school funding and protecting obscenely low taxes for the wealthy and giant corporations, legislative Republicans went all in opposing more money for schools. Thankfully, they found themselves on the wrong side of a 54-46% vote.

In 2007, Republican commentator (and business executive) Larry Huss laid out the more prominent GOP argument, calling additional funding for K-12 schools “throw[ing] more money at Oregon’s failing educational system.”

But this week, Republican Senators, including many who don’t normally have anything nice to say about public schools, scrambled to outdo themselves calling for greater and greater investments in K-12. Sen. Alan Olsen (R-Canby) asked how anyone could live with themselves after voting for a $6.55 billion K-12 budget. They all echoed the facts that advocates (like us) have been talking about for years–that we have one of the largest class sizes and shortest school years, and that we’re disinvesting in our future.

So what happened to make the GOP go from being hostile to increasing funds for education to pounding their fists on the table demanding more money? Simple: They discovered they could take hundreds of millions–if not billions–away from low-income seniors.

Republicans aren’t looking to put more money into schools by reining in out-of-control tax breaks or raising the corporate tax rate (which is the lowest in the nation). They aren’t asking for big corporations, who are enjoying record-high profits, to contribute anything. They aren’t asking for a dime more from the richest 1%, who’ve seen their incomes increase since the end of the recession while everyone else has seen losses. In fact, Republican Senators want to tie budget negotiations to new tax cuts for the rich.

Instead, they want to generate funds by making even deeper cuts to pensions for retired public employees. On average, these retirees make about $27,000 per year–a fixed income situation if there ever was one. Republicans want to cut or eliminate their cost of living allowances, so that their pensions won’t keep up with inflation. (The COLAs are already lower than inflation rates.) That means that every year, these seniors will be able to pay for less and less as costs for food, gas, housing, etc. climb. After working for decades to secure a stable retirement, they’ll find themselves having to make difficult choices between buying food and buying medicine or paying rent.

How in the world is that fair?

The cynical approach taken by legislative Republicans begs a cynical question: Do they sincerely care about school kids (given their historic indifference), or do they just really, really not like retired public employees?

Here’s the deal: $6.55 billion (plus $200 million in pension cuts) really IS an inadequate budget for K-12 schools. It’ll mean some districts can stop cutting, but many other districts will still have to make cuts to school days and teachers. And this comes on top of years of ongoing budget cuts. Oregon students need a much deeper level of investment from the state. Our economic future depends on it. But if we fund schools on the backs of vulnerable senior citizens, it will signal a moral and financial failure on our part. Instead, we need to ask large, profitable corporations (who are currently contributing next to nothing to our schools and basic services) to finally pony up. Unfortunately, legislative Republicans have completely rejected every plan that would ask for more from those who’ve prospered even through the recession.

By the way, the K-12 budget failed 15-15, although Sen. Chris Edwards (D-Eugene) who voted against the bill, filed a motion to reconsider the bill, and it’s on the docket for this Friday.

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