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Tuition-cutting bill hits roadblock in Washington House

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – A Senate bill that promises to slash tuition at the state’s colleges and universities hit a potential roadblock in a House committee Thursday, as representatives warned the proposal could hurt financial aid programs and cause major shortfalls in higher education.

Sponsored by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the bill could cut tuition by as much as 30 percent at Washington’s top research institutions, by linking rates to a percentage of the state’s average wage. Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, introduced a bill this week to pay for the loss by shifting some taxes on bank loans into a higher education fund.

But House Higher Education Committee Chairman Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said neither bill would move forward without solid projections on how the policy would impact the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program.

GET is an investment program that allows parents and guardians to buy units of tuition early in a child’s life. The units retain their value at state colleges over time, so tuition ultimately costs less – assuming rates will keep rising due to inflation.

Braun’s bill would require GET administrators to adjust the program so that units continue to retain their value. But opponents – including Reykdal – said they weren’t convinced that could be done.

Another concern is that there’s not enough money in the state’s operating budget to backfill the loss of tuition revenue – up to $232 million through 2017. The bill doesn’t provide another way to make money for higher education.

“This is not about finding a new source of revenue,” Braun said. “This is about making universities whole with the revenue we have.”

Hansen asked where the Legislature could cut spending, but Braun declined to reveal parts of the Senate’s budget proposal, which should be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Garrett Havens, the executive director of the Washington Student Association, said while students would rejoice at paying less for college, many wonder how lawmakers could find that money in the state’s general budget.

“We realize that the total budget may be $37 billion, but two-thirds of that money is spoken for, that we can’t touch,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect headline.
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