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Washington House, Senate higher ed budgets at odds

Chad Sokol And Jim Camden The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Senate Republicans want to spend roughly $3.5 billion on higher education, a 20 percent increase that could allow for dramatic tuition cuts at Washington’s universities.

But that dramatic increase would provide significantly less for doctor training programs in Spokane than what Democrats have proposed in the House.

Under the proposed Senate budget, Washington State University would get $2.5 million to seek accreditation for a new medical school in Spokane, on the condition that WSU will work with the University of Washington to train medical students in the existing WWAMI program until the new school is operating. UW would get $2.5 million for those Spokane medical students, an amount officials said wouldn’t cover the cost of the current level of students, let alone allow for expansion.

The budget, unveiled Tuesday, reflects what some Republicans championed since the start of the session, a higher priority for higher education with lower tuition and without a tax increase. Stagnant levels of state funding that have led tuition to nearly triple over the last decade or so, they said.

Sen. Andy Hill, the Senate Republicans’ lead budget writer, called higher tuition “really nothing more than a hidden tax for the people we rely on most for our future.”

The tuition-cutting measure coincides with a bill that passed the Senate last month that would slash tuition by an average of 25 percent at state four-year institutions by linking it to a percentage of the state’s average wage.

Democrats in both chambers have warned the proposal could hurt financial aid programs and cause major shortfalls in higher education. The bill remains in the House Higher Education Committee, where a vote scheduled for Tuesday was postponed.

“We don’t have enough votes for it,” said Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, who serves on the committee. “We think it is a promise that is difficult to fulfill long-term.”

By limiting how much colleges and universities can charge for tuition, the policy would require the Legislature supply enough state money to cover the schools’ costs. But higher education isn’t protected by the state constitution, and the bill’s opponents fear the Legislature won’t set aside enough in the coming years.

The Senate budget would spend $221 million to cover the loss of tuition revenue over the next two years, while cutting $75 million from state financial aid programs. The House budget, unveiled last week, would freeze tuition at current levels for the third year in a row.

The two budgets have significantly different proposals for medical education in Spokane. Senate Republicans essentially order the two universities to cooperate like they did until their partnership over WWAMI was dissolved last fall. They give each $2.5 million, which is the amount WSU estimated it needed to seek accreditation and set up a medical school that would begin accepting students in 2017.

That amount “is insufficient to support our existing 40 students, much less increasing enrollment by another 20 students as we hope to do this fall to address the physician shortage in our state,” Ana Mari Cauce, interim UW president, said in a statement.

Ken Roberts, acting dean of WSU College of Medical Sciences, said he hadn’t had a chance to study the Senate proposal Tuesday afternoon, but said the school could provide services to UW students as it has in the past. “UW was fairly insistent our partnership has come to an end,” he added.

The House budget has some $8 million for WSU, the $2.5 million for accreditation, plus other money to set up the medical school curriculum and continue other programs in the College of Medical Sciences that are used by students and will be available to med students. It has $9.4 million for UW in Spokane, replacing money that WSU received for WWAMI programs and providing for an increase to 60 students each year of the biennium.

“We like the House budget better. The Senate budget is under what we need,” said Norman Arkans, associate vice president of media relations at UW School of Medicine.

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