State commission approves tuition increase

The Oregon State Capitol building in Salem. (Creative Commons)

The last year marked an eventful time in Oregon state politics. From bills that passed or failed to events yet to come, ahead of the 2020 legislative session, here is a look back at the Emerald's coverage of 2019's legislative news.

Tuition developments

To the consternation of many UO students, 2019 marked 6.91% and 2.97% increases in resident and nonresident tuition, respectively, with those increases approved by the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

However, there was some legislative resistance to the rising cost of higher education, as two representatives introduced a bill that would freeze tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland) and Rob Nosse (D-Portland) sponsored the bill, which had the support of ASUO leaders at UO, would affect Oregon's public universities and community colleges for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.

However, the bill hinged upon the appropriation of money from the state's General Fund in order to maintain tuition levels, or, according to Nosse, possibly increasing taxes on corporate activity. “We wouldn’t do a freeze if we can’t find the money,” Nosse told the Emerald by phone at the time. In the end, the bill didn't proceed far during the 2019 session; instead it was referred for consideration to the House Committee on Education and the Ways and Means Committee.

More opportunities for transfer students

A Senate bill in the session intended to ease the path for transfer students by changing the Transfer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Expanding off 2017's HB 2889, which reduced the number of credits lost in transferring, SB 730 intended to require the Higher Education Coordination Commission to cut back on the complexity of the process by establishing an advisory staff and forming an electronic system for “disseminating information regarding foundational curricula and unified statewide transfer agreements,” according to the bill's text. 

The bill currently rests in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

UO students and state try to ban polystyrene containers

In spring term, the legislature took on single-use polystyrene packaging, with the aid of student activist group OSPIRG. HB 2883, sponsored by Rep. Sheri Schouten (D-Beaverton) aimed to ban food vendors specifically from using polystyrene, or styrofoam, containers in serving food, in what Schouten hoped would make for a positive step forward.

“We're not interested in punishing people, we didn't want to set up a polystyrene police,” Schouten told the Emerald in May. “We would like them to change because that's what people expect in the modern world.”

OSPIRG, meanwhile, was involved in a major lobbying push to make the bill law. Alyssa Gilbert, then UO's chapter head for the group, said at the time that the effort was one of OSPIRG's main concerns, and that in support of the bill, they had canvassed, gathered student petitions and lobbied at the State Capitol.

The bill failed initially in the House before a second vote impelled it to the Senate, where it ultimately failed again on June 11, according to the bill history. Despite its demise, the legislature did pass HB 2509 in June, the Sustainable Shopping Initiative, to ban single-use plastic checkout bags, taking effect January 1, 2020. At local level, the City of Eugene, with OSPIRG's backing, passed a ban on polystyrene food packaging  as well.

First state capital plan for universities

In October, the state announced the first-ever strategic plan for Oregon's seven public universities, meaning construction-related projects at those institutions can follow a state guideline, especially when it comes to getting funding for those projects. 

The plan, based on research conducted in 2019, laid out the issues related to university capital, identifying many problems across the board with aging facilities and changing needs associated with learning and administrative spaces, recommending how those universities could improve that space in sustainable ways.

HECC then used the new plan to revise the state's capital project rubric, which is used to determine which university projects, submitted to the state for consideration by the institutions, will be prioritized for funding from the legislature. 

Jim Pinkard, HECC director of postsecondary finance and capital, told the Emerald in December, “What we've done is provide a capital rubric, and that rubric is really an expression of what the state values. This is the framework, this is the lens through which we view these projects, and how closely these projects align with what the state wants, the higher up the list they will be.” 

Among the projects for consideration is the renovation of UO's biological science building Huestis Hall, ranked five out of the 15 total projects. To pay for the estimated $63.6 million projects, the state would provide $57.24 million and UO $6.36 million. However, there is no guarantee that the project will receive funding when the list is considered by the legislature in the upcoming session.

UO seeks a new research boat

The main UO campus might not give much thought to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, the marine studies establishment for the university, given its location at Charleston on the Oregon coast. However, as reported in October 2019, the university is and has been involved in an effort to obtain more funding for a new research vessel to replace their current one, Research Vessel Pluteus. 

As Craig Young, director of OIMB explained, not only was the 46-year-old boat becoming too old, it also needed to accommodate large class sizes. “Even though our classes meet all day long, it's virtually impossible to split our classes into two parts, take half out for half the day, and take the other half out the other half of the day,” Young told the Emerald. “We need a boat that's large enough to take our classes out as a single unit.”

In response, Senator Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) and Representatives Caddy McKeown (D-Coos Bay) and David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford), sponsored SB 255, which would have set aside $500,000 in state money to help cover replacement costs. That bill ultimately failed, but as Roblan told the Emerald in the interview, lawmakers are working to get a bill passed in 2020 with the same purpose.

Gina Scalpone and Zack Demars contributed reporting to this story.