Not that they have a lot of say in the state Senate lately, but minority Democrats held a press conference Tuesday to lay out a handful of bills they are introducing to hold the line on higher-education tuition, which has nearly tripled since 2000. Longer term, the Democrats said they want to set a new goal for a 50-50 split between the share of a college education paid by tuition and the state taxpayers’ share – reversing a trend that has seen state support fall to 35 percent at places like the University of Washington.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said she wants to take universities up on an offer to hold tuition rates flat in 2013-15 if the Legislature comes up with $225 million increase in funding over the next two years. Her proposed Senate Bill 5420 would enact a two-year freeze on tuition rates.
Another measure from Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, would create incentives for universities to hold down tuition. He said SB 5390 would provide greater state support for institutions that do. After years of double-digit annual increases, tuition and fees at the University of Washington now total $12,383 per year.
But the Democrats are quickly finding what it is like to be in the minority. Kohl-Welles said she does not yet know if the proposals can get a hearing in the Senate Higher Education Committee, which is chaired by Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor.
“I think the jury is out on that. We’d like to make the case for that,” Kohl-Welles told a press conference.
Kohl-Welles and other minority Democrats gave up a chance to chair the higher-education committee under a proposal from the Majority Coalition Caucus, which includes 23 Republicans and two Democrats, earlier this year. The remaining 24 Democrats in the minority believed the coalition was not truly offering bipartisan power sharing, and Kohl-Welles said it was not something she wanted to be part of.
That said, Kohl-Welles, Frockt and other Democrats including Sen. Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island want to make the case that with rising state revenues the Legislature should put more into higher ed.
Frockt said after the news conference that higher education “needs to be a priority” in the budget that will be written in March by the Republican-dominated majority in the Senate. He said $225 million is roughly 10 percent of the expected increase in state revenues over the next two years.
The lawmakers did not present specific ideas for new revenues at their news conference, but Kohl-Welles said she does like an idea from Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle. Last week, Murray laid out an idea for a 5 percent capital gains excise tax. Murray indicated he wants the funds to go for K-12 schools and higher education.
The Democrats calling a press conference were joined by college students who said they were helped by the Guaranteed Education Tuition, or GET, program, which Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, has said the state should close to new entrants.
Frockt said that if the state were able to raise its commitment to higher education, the escalating tuition rates that are creating a potential deficit in GET would subside and level off for the next few years.
UPDATE: The Democrats put out a press release about their ideas, which is here.