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Don’t be surprised if Democratic Legislature approves hefty hikes to tuition for 2009-11

Post by Joe Turner on Dec. 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm |
December 29, 2008 7:25 pm

Here’s a story that will appear in Tuesday’s print edition of The News Tribune.

BY Joseph Turner


Tuition at the University of Washington could rise much higher than the 7 percent annual increases proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this month.

The Legislature has approved double-digit increases several times in the past 25 years, most recently in 2002, when state lawmakers let the UW and Washington State University hike tuition by 16 percent for undergraduates. That year, Washington was facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall.

Today, the projected shortfall is $5.7 billion and climbing.

And the state’s budget woes could be four times worse than those of 2002 by late April 2009, when the Legislature is expected to finish writing its version of a state budget for 2009-11.

The severity of the budget crisis alone suggests lawmakers might once again turn to huge tuition hikes to offset deep cuts they otherwise would have to make to higher education.

Tuition and fees at the UW this year are $6,802. Gregoire, who released her budget Dec. 18, would let UW regents raise tuition for resident undergraduate students — the benchmark group — to $7,255 next year and to $7,708 for the 2010-11 school year. College officials can set tuition for graduate and out-of-state students as they see fit, and those rates generally are double those for undergraduates who are Washington residents.

The governor’s 7 percent tuition increases would raise about $65 million over two years. That’s not nearly enough to make up for the $116 million that Gregoire wants to cut from other parts of the UW budget.

Overall, Gregoire’s budget would cut $350 million from budgets of the six four-year universities and 34 community and technical colleges. That’s 13 percent of their collective budgets, which concerns key lawmakers. Of equal concern is the governor’s proposal to cut state financial aid to the poor, which would make fewer students eligible.

"That’s somewhat contrary to what we’ve done in the past," said Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, incoming chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "Traditionally, as the state has raised tuition, it’s done so while also expanding financial aid eligibility so you maintain access for lower- and middle-income families.

"Investing in higher education is our way out of this mess," he added.

Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, chairwoman of the Senate budget committee, was non-committal about whether or how high the Legislature might raise tuition. That’s a decision that won’t be made until lawmakers talk among themselves, she said. The Legislature will convene Jan. 12 for a 105-day session.

"The situation is so dire and we still don’t know how bad it’s going to be," she said in an interview last week. "I think the situation probably will be a half a billion dollars worse by the time we write ours."

Prentice was referring to the budget the Senate will write sometime after the March 2009 revenue forecast, which will give senators a clearer idea of how badly state tax collections are expected to fall. Many legislators expect the gap between tax collections and the projected level of spending before any cuts to exceed $6 billion.

"Obviously, all levels of education are important," she added. "We don’t want to harm our children’s future. We do have a commitment to higher education."

Several factors argue in favor of hefty tuition increases.

One of them is history.

Some of the largest tuition hikes have occurred under the watch of Democrats, when they controlled one or both chambers of the Legislature. Such was the case in 1985-86, when lawmakers boosted tuition by 21.6 percent. Likewise, Democratic Legislatures approved double-digit increases for 1991-92, 1993-94 and 1994-95, as well as 2002-03.

A second reason is, boosting tuition is much easier than raising taxes.

Tuition is consider a fee. Fees can be raised by a simple majority vote in the Legislature.

Tax increases, on the other hand, require a supermajority vote in the Legislature (two-thirds) or a public vote, thanks to voter approval of Tim Eyman‘s Initiative 960. And while Democrats have hefty majorities in the House (62-36) and Senate (31-18), they still would need a few Republican votes to get to two-thirds in each chamber.

While Gregoire promised not to raise taxes, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate made no such promise so they aren’t bound by her pledge. And in tough times, Democratic Legislatures and governors have closed budget deficits using a half-and-half approach: half cuts, half from new revenues.

That’s what they did in the 2002 session. They got part of their revenue that year by borrowing $450 million and pledging payments from the national tobacco lawsuit settlement to make payments. Another big chunk was from the 16 percent tuition hike.

A third reason is that Washington’s universities want to raise tuition.

Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, top-ranking Republican on the House budget committee, said representatives of Washington State and Western Washington universities visited him earlier this month, asking the Legislature for more flexibility.

"They said they weren’t looking forward to the budget reductions that higher ed was being asked to make, and they were asking for flexibility," Alexander said. "I interpreted that as the ability to establish tuition rates without having a limit imposed by the Legislature."

"I’m in favor of some flexibility, but I don’t want to balance the budget by raising tuition to astronomical levels," he said. "If we get to the level of 15-16 percent, you’re not going to find much support. "I think 7 percent is in the ballpark."

The 7 percent annual hikes proposed by the governor are what the state has done for the past six years. Gregoire’s budget would let the two-year colleges raise tuition by 5 percent each year.

Randy Hodgins, UW lobbyist and a former budget staffer for the state Senate, said the UW gets roughly half of its money from tuition and half from direct state appropriations. Letting the university raise tuition, "keeps the cut to core education from being bigger," he said.

"We’d be happy to have a conversation about tuition going up beyond 7 percent, provided we could use some of that to provide more financial aid," Hodgins said. If the Legislature were to allow a 15 to 20 percent increase, he said, "we could use some of that revenue for low-middle income families that don’t qualify for financial aid pots now. We could give them something to soften the blow for the middle class."

Since 2002, universities have had free rein to decide how much tuition to charge graduate and out-of-state students, but that authority runs out June 30, 2009. Hodgins said the UW will be seeking to extend that authority.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436


(Photo: blurasis.)

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