Gov. Mike Lowry’s higher education plan drew a flunking grade from lawmakers Tuesday.
At the Legislature’s first hearing on the sweeping package, senators from both parties blistered every aspect of the Democratic governor’s plan.
Lowry’s proposal for big localoption tuition increases, much of it earmarked for mandatory salary increases for faculty and staff, was denounced by the Senate Higher Education Committee as evading the Legislature’s responsibility to fund public colleges, including salaries.
Lowry also would order colleges to cut their operating budgets by 2 percent or more to help fund the $80 million salary increase. The cuts-forsalary-increases also was ripped.
“I’m amazed you could sit there with a straight face when you try to pull off this lightbulb snatch,” thundered Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, the Republicans’ ranking budget member. He was dressing-down Lowry emissary Mike Bigelow.
College staffers’ pay increases shouldn’t have to “come out of the hide” of their institutions, West said.
Democrats joined the Lowrylashing.
“I have a real concern that the governor’s proposal pits students against the faculty,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl, D-Seattle.
The proposal to allow college
trustees to boost tuition by up to 10 percent a year seems cynically timed to pay for the salaries, and not because each campus needs flexibility, senators from both parties said.
Lowry also was criticized for a plan to boost student financial aid by $60 million by diverting business taxes that otherwise would go to the state treasury. Critics called it a shell game and said it might blunt efforts to get businesses to donate to colleges outright.
Lowry’s $1.9 billion higher educa tion budget would be about 10.4 percent of the overall budget, not counting locally retained tuition dollars. That budget share has been steadily eroding from a high of 22 percent, senators said.
Bigelow had no sooner begun his presentation, touting Lowry’s commitment to higher education, when Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, interrupted.
Washington has dropped from seventh in the nation in 1980 for the percentage of people attending college to dead last, he said. The budget share is being squeezed mercilessly and drops yet again in the latest budget, he said. “How will you convince us it’s a priority?” he asked.
West was even more pointed.
“If the governor thinks the state should be going out of the higher education business, he should be more honest about it,” he said.
“He has not suggested that,” replied Bigelow.
“You wouldn’t know it by looking at this budget,” snapped West.
Lowry proposes a modest increase of 2,341 students, with much of that financed through a worker-retraining fund. The increase would cover predicted population growth.
But with an estimated 50,000 new students headed toward campus in the next decade, the state must step up to the problem now, legislators from both parties said.
“Why do we want to stay 50th (in access to a college education)? That isn’t much to be proud of,” Prince said. “Twenty years down the road, we’re going to be in serious trouble.”