Oregon’s universities will face more budget cuts in the coming years after lawmakers passed a spending plan that significantly slashes state support for higher education.

Legislators last week voted 43-15 to approve a $709 million budget for the next two years that cuts funding to the state’s seven public universities by 17 percent — a 5 percent decrease from the governor’s recommend budget. Included is a 22 percent decrease in money allocated for student instruction.

This marks the second biennium in a row of declining state support for the Oregon University System. In 2005, state appropriations comprised 36 percent of the University of Oregon’s budget. Today, state support makes up just 7 percent of the University’s budget.

“These are difficult times for the state,” said State Board of Higher Education President Paul Kelly, offering his sympathy for those passing legislation amid troubled times. “I’m sure that lawmakers have done the best they thought they could do for higher ed.”

Yet, in the capital, some weren’t so understanding. On the House floor, representatives spoke out against the proposed budget, chastising the legislature for its failure to bolster the state’s universities.

“We don’t take higher ed seriously in this state,” Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) said to House members. “I think we obviously need to pass the bill, but we need to take seriously our objectives for higher education.”

This drop in state support parallels an unprecedented growth in enrollment throughout Oregon’s public universities, which has increased by 31 percent in the past 10 years.

Now, it is up to students to cover the cost. Earlier this month the State Board of Higher Education approved tuition increases for all Oregon University System institutions. At the University of Oregon, tuition will increase next year by 7.5 percent for nonresident undergraduates and 9 percent for resident undergraduates.

Kelly said it’s the only mechanism currently in place to make up for the budgetary shortfall.

“Students do wind up bearing more of the burden themselves,” Kelly said. “It’s unfortunate, but it is one of the most significant tools that we currently have available to us.”

The legislature is holding on to $25.4 million in appropriations to mitigate any unexpected revenue changes. Depending on the universities’ revenue, OUS could get some or all of the “holdback” money in the 2012 Legislative Session.

Like many higher education officials, Kelly is hopeful that Senate Bill 242, which would grant OUS more authority and less reliance on the state, will offer some steps to reforming Oregon’s higher education system and alleviate some of the burden on students’ pocketbooks.

“If we change nothing, then this pattern is likely to continue,” Kelly said. “We as a state have to come up with a more stable funding mechanism for higher ed because the model we’ve been working under just isn’t sustainable.”