OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans announced what they dubbed a bold plan to reverse the trend in the state’s public colleges and universities, saying they wanted to add $300 million to the budget for higher education over the next two years and cut tuition by 3 percent.
The extra money amounts to a 10 percent increase in the overall state spending on higher education. Of the total, $50 million would be directed at increasing slots for science, technology, engineering and math degrees, $42 million for lower tuition and $26 million to expand state need grants for children.
But at a press conference called to announce the introduction of the legislation that spells out the plan, sponsors refused to detail how they would find that $300 million in a budget that already is out of balance and has competing demands for the money that is expected to be there. They won’t raise taxes, they said.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said state tax receipts are expected to grow by about 7 percent, which will be enough to cover the costs if the Legislature makes higher education a priority. The latest economic and revenue forecast is expected to be released on Wednesday, and early indications are that it could project a gap of more than $1 billion between the money the state can expect to collect in taxes and fees, and the cost of continuing programs it now has.
The Legislature also faces a mandate from the state Supreme Court to do a better job of meeting its constitutional obligation that makes the kindergarten through high school education the “paramount duty.” Estimates on the cost of those changes over the next two years vary, but could be as much as $1 billion.
The $300 million cost of the higher education initiative announced today would be on top of that.
Earlier this year, the presidents of the state’s six four-year universities proposed freezing tuition at current levels if the Legislature would increase their budgets by $225 million. Under the plan introduced today, the Legislature would give the schools more money, but take away their authority to raise tuition, which was granted several years ago as the Legislature cut state aid to higher education.
“They’ll be very pleased that they’re getting 10 percent more money,” Baumgartner predicted. “They’ll have concerns about (losing) tuition-setting aulthority.”