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Portland-area lawmakers can show their support for rural Oregon by allowing community colleges to access state bond money

The Oregon Legislature has a chance to bridge the urban-rural gap and also show its support for education in one fell swoop. It just needs to free up funds that it authorized 16 years ago for building and facility improvements at seven community colleges.

Back in 2005, the Legislature agreed to a bond program for capital improvements at the state's 17 community colleges. The hitch was that the colleges were expected to match those state funds with money raised locally through bond measures.

Some colleges, including Portland Community College and Clackamas Community College, have been wildly successful in getting voters to agree to raise taxes through bond measures. Therefore, they've been able to tap into the state matching funds.

Unfortunately, other colleges — most notably, Mt. Hood Community College — have failed in their multiple attempts to get voters to pass bond measures.

Beyond MHCC, six other colleges have projects that have been authorized for matching funds, but they also haven't been able to come up with the necessary local dollars. These colleges have something in common: They are in eastern, southern or coastal Oregon, far away from the population centers around Portland and the Willamette Valley.

These communities are struggling economically, which makes it that much harder to persuade voters to squeeze out more tax dollars for capital construction bonds.

MHCC is in a parallel situation. It is not strictly a rural college, but it has a sprawling district that includes outer East Portland, where poverty has spiked over the past two decades. This inability for families to pay more taxes has contributed to failed bond measures.

Meanwhile, the more prosperous areas of the state have invested in their colleges. Better community college facilities bring economic growth. In other words, communities that have improved their colleges with the state's help have surged ahead economically. But rural communities are lagging, and they cannot access state funds that could help their colleges and their local economies.

Since 2005, the state has provided more than $350 million for 60 community college projects. However, another $70 million is still available through the state's bonding capacity. MHCC, for example, could receive up to $8 million if it could only come up with an equal amount in matching funds.

After 16 years of trying, it's hard to blame these colleges for failing to pass bond measures. MHCC has gone to voters three times. It has come close: One failure was due to a now-defunct double-majority requirement. But it hasn't gotten past the finish line.

The answer is for the Legislature, and particularly urban lawmakers, to give the colleges more flexibility in finding dollars to match the state's bond money. The colleges could use money the state allocates to them through other means, such as the general fund or Oregon Lottery, if the Legislature allows this in the 2021 budgeting process.

Investing in community colleges is valuable in and of itself. But the Legislature also should be motivated to give an economic boost to rural communities, including Klamath Falls, Ontario, Pendleton, Roseburg, Newport and Coos Bay. People in those regions often think the metro area doesn't understand their needs or care about their communities. This is an opportunity, and a fairly painless one, for Portland-area legislators to show they do have the interests of the entire state in mind.


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