Can the Oregon Democratic Coalition split over Tuition and PERS?

“Republican and Democratic voters disagree about a lot. But the divide between each party’s members is much wider than simply distinct policy positions and different evaluations of candidates. Each party’s supporters define the terms and stakes of political competition quite differently. Republicans believe they’re battling over two opposing ideologies, while Democrats view partisan conflict instead as a fight between different social groups.”  –  Matt Grossman and David Hopkins, The Washington Post, September 27, 2016

In a new book by Professors Grossman and Hopkins Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, they use data to show that this pattern has been followed by the parties for decades. And, the same data shows that the parties are basically accurate about what motivates their party members. Republicans like to talk about their ideology, and Democrats like to talk about policies that government can implement that will benefit the groups within their coalition.

Here in Oregon though, if the professors are accurate, the Oregon Democratic coalition should be tested this biennium. And the test is PERS versus higher education, which is pitting Public Employee Union retirement benefits, against college affordability.

Portland Community College is looking at a $12 million deficit and has proposed a 7% increase in tuition to close that gap. PCC is also reporting that during this biennium, their PERS contributions will increase $8.5 billion dollars. And based on PERS adminstrators presentations over the pat few months, similar PERS increases will be required for the next several bienniums absent any changes. Meaning that PCC students will likely be facing similarly large tuition increases for 6-8 more years.

Millenials lean Democratic by 57% to 36% nationwide.  And college educated voters lean Democrat by a small margin. College educated millenials are an important part of the Democratic coalition. And what they want by way of public policy is access to quality higher education.

If PCC did not face PERS increases, that 7% tuition hike would be 2%. Which is closer to the true rate of core inflation and a justifiable increase.


More moderate business leaders are open to discussing a tax increase. But they have insisted that spending reforms, and particular PERS changes, be on the table. Otherwise tax increases or even tax reform is DOA this session.

And here is where college aged and soon to be college aged millenials could play an important part in solving Oregon’s budget problem. Their need is immediate. Tuition needs to be controlled now. Not two bieniums from now. Not in 10 years as the “cost curve” changes. And they are not only an important part of the current Democratic coalition, they are the future leaders of the Democratic coalition.

If Professors Grossman and Hopkins are correct, that the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups seeking benefits, and that’s how they develop policy, it’s not Republican values arguments that are going to change spending policy. It’s when a large enough part of that Democratic coalition recognizes that a policy is doing susbtantial harm to their interests.

If college millenials accept that if there are no PERS changes, then there will be no significant new revenue  for higher ed and that will cause huge tuition increases over the next several years, it could change the calculation within the Democratic coalition.

And, if Republicans were smart, they might abandon their ideological rhetoric, talk like Democrats and promise tuition freezes in exchange for PERS changes.



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