Measure 98 meets budget reality

It appears that Ballot Measure 98, the voter-approved initiative that directs the state to spend $300 million on dropout prevention, vocational education and college prep to increase graduation rates, is still alive in the 2017 legislative session. But lawmakers still have their eye on that $300 million as they struggle to cope with a $1.6 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget.

We endorsed Ballot Measure 98 in the 2016 election, noting that studies clearly show students with access to Career and Technical Education are more likely to graduate, dropout-prevention programs keep at-risk students from leaving early, and college-level courses better prepare academically inclined students for college. Backers of the measure designed it to take effect only if state revenues increased as expected, so they could accurately claim the new programs were paid for with new money, not by forcing cuts elsewhere.

If implemented as written, the measure would mean $800 more per student for Oregon high schools.

But we warned that the state was facing rising costs from the Public Employee Retirement System, and all bets were off if the tax-raising Ballot Measure 97 didn't pass. It didn't.

Measure 98 backers want the Legislature to honor the will of the voters and implement the measure. A House effort to keep it intact has survived the latest deadline in Salem, while a teachers union-backed effort to transform Measure 98 into an optional grant fund failed in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the governor's budget calls for cutting the $300 million in half, and the budget proposal of Ways and Means co-chairs would trim it by about a third. The final outcome won't be known for some time.

Oregonians are rightfully proud of their tradition of legislating by citizen initiative, but it has its drawbacks. Making precise budget decisions by popular vote — the state must spend exactly this much money on exactly these programs, no matter what else happens — too often runs smack into the reality of budget demands.

That's why Oregon law provides that a statutory initiative — one that enacts a new law but does not place it in the Constitution — is subject to change by the Legislature. Measure 98 is statutory, and lawmakers can toss it out entirely if they choose.

It's a tribute to Measure 98's value that lawmakers are working as hard as they are to preserve at least some of its funding. But the looming budget shortfall means every statutory program, no matter how well-intentioned, can be tapped to fill the hole.

As Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, told The Associated Press, "The voters indeed have spoken on this issue. But they spoke without writing a check."

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