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 overall state spending on higher education, with $50 million directed at increasing slots for science, technology, engineering and math degrees and $26 million more for state need grants for students.
But in announcing 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 would 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 today, and early indications are that it could project a gap of more than $1 billion between the money the state can expect to collect 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 to make kindergarten through high school education the “paramount duty.” Estimates on the cost of those changes over the next two years vary, but it could be as much as $1 billion.
The $300 million cost of the higher education proposal would be on top of that. Any cuts for other programs will be detailed in the full budget, which will be released later this month.
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 a total of $225 million. The Senate Republicans’ plan includes community colleges as well as the four-year institutions, plus a tuition cut.
“They’ll be very pleased that they’re getting 10 percent more money,” Baumgartner predicted. “They’ll have concerns about tuition-setting authority.”
After the 2013-15 biennium, tuition could only rise at the rate of inflation. Lower tuition now, and a slower rate of increase in the future, would stabilize the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program, said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
Representatives from Washington State and Eastern Washington universities said they wanted to see the details of the proposal before deciding whether to support it.
Chris Mulick of WSU said he has seen only the overall numbers, not what it means for the individual universities.
David Buri of EWU said the school has questions about how some aspects of the proposal would work. “It’s encouraging to have a group of senators talk about prioritizing higher education and increasing funding,” he said.