Oregon Senate votes down schools budget

Oregon Senate votes down schools budget
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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Senate rejected a $6.55 billion budget for primary and secondary schools Monday after one Democrat and all 14 Republicans said it didn't provide enough money.

The 15-15 vote complicates efforts to put together a new two-year state budget.

The funding bill for schools would have represented an $800 million increase compared with the last two years, an increase of 14 percent. Combined with $200 million in savings from cuts to retirement benefits for public employees, most school districts would be able to avoid reducing the number of teachers or school days after years of cutting costs.

Democratic supporters championed what they called the largest-ever school budget.

"This budget will reverse that trend in teacher layoffs and ballooning class sizes," said Sen. Diane Rosenbaum of Portland, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

But Republicans refused to support the budget without steeper cuts to public-employee pensions, which would allow school districts to save money on retirement costs.

"We're taking a pass on the future of our students," said Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood. "This budget sells our students short."

Democratic Sen. Chris Edwards, of Eugene, joined GOP opponents, saying his local school district was one of a handful that would still face budget cuts next year. Edwards is pushing for a combination of pension cuts and increased tax revenue to boost school funding and minimize the impacts on the Eugene district.

"We've got to stand up and lead for our constituents that don't understand politics, that just sent us here to do the right thing for their kids," Edwards said. "For them, at least back home in my town, this budget isn't good enough."

Edwards' decision to break with his party frustrated Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders.

Kitzhaber issued an unusually biting statement, saying he was "very disappointed" in Edwards and GOP senators.

"Kids have gone home for the summer, and school districts across the state face tremendous uncertainty," Kitzhaber said. "It's inexcusable that D.C.-like gamesmanship won out over Oregon common sense."

Republicans and Democrats have been at odds for weeks over raising new revenue — a Democratic priority — and cutting public-employee pensions, a Republican demand. On-again-off-again talks have failed to produce a compromise that both sides could accept.

Democratic leaders say the state can function without increasing taxes or lowering pension costs but doing so would allow for smaller increases in college tuition and more comfortable budgets for primary and secondary schools.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution that would allow the government to continue operating at current spending levels until Aug. 15 in case lawmakers don't finish the budget before spending authorization expires June 30.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.