January 10, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Pressure for tuition hikes should fall to lawmakers


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

The presidents of Washington’s six public four-year universities have tired of legislators solving the state’s budget problems by making them higher education’s problem, and they have an unexpected ally – of sorts – in Tim Eyman.

As lawmakers have whacked away at university funding, tuitions at Washington State University and other Washington campuses have nearly doubled the last five years. The state, which once paid 70 percent of college costs, now ponies up about 30 percent.

Lawmakers – many of whom attended those universities when their costs were a fraction of those borne by today’s students – have finessed taking direct responsibility for the hefty price hikes by transferring tuition-setting authority to the universities. Now, the presidents have a deal for legislators.

If the state will increase its annual higher education budget of about $1 billion by $225 million over the upcoming biennium, the campuses will freeze tuition for those two years. That additional money, by the way, restores the state’s contribution to about what it was in 2009.

WSU President Elson Floyd had suggested earlier that tuition hikes might be limited to the increase in the cost of living if the Legislature would at least maintain current funding, but he was looking for a little extra money to help lower-paid faculty.

In her final budget, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a tuition freeze, but provided no additional state funds.

That did not go over well with the presidents, but it will be the number from Gov.-elect Jay Inslee that counts. We do not yet know his plans, but we do know this: State forecasters are again anticipating a budget shortfall for the biennium, this one in the neighborhood of $900 million. And that does not fully factor in a potential $1 billion in new K-12 education funding that may be needed to satisfy a state Supreme Court that ruled legislators are shorting students.

Gregoire is willing to raise taxes to assure the state takes full responsibility. Inslee has said he is not going there.

But how does Eyman figure in all this?

Mr. Initiative claims his last successful effort, I-1185, imposes on legislators – and legislators only – responsibility for setting tuition, which he defines as a fee. Increases would require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. Lawmakers say they handed tuition-setting duties to the campuses.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, has asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on the application of I-1185 to tuition-setting. An informal opinion addressing an earlier Eyman initiative declared that it might.

Although unsympathetic to the very broad interpretation Eyman gives I-1185, and to any of his initiatives, for that matter, we would not be averse to a finding that puts more pressure on lawmakers, and less on university boards and their beleaguered, debt-ridden students.

They need a little new math.

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