GOP proposes boost in spending for colleges

In exchange, Senate plan would mandate tuition cut; percentage increase debated

Staff writerMarch 20, 2013 

Republicans who control the state Senate announced Tuesday their coalition’s forthcoming budget proposal that would spend more than $3 billion on Washington’s universities and colleges and would mandate a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students after years of increases.

Spokane Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner said it was a bold plan that would boost funding by more than 10 percent from the current two-year budget.

“We think a 10 percent increase in funding is a remarkable change from what’s been happening in past legislative sessions, so this is a big step in the right direction,” Baumgartner told reporters.

A student representative from Washington State University joined him to cheer the plan – a reversal of students watching budgets in horror over seven years as tuition shot up by more than 60 percent at the state’s two-year colleges and more than 100 percent on average at the four-year universities. Democrats, too, cautiously praised the notion of increasing funding.

But hours after the announcement, schools were still scrambling to figure out just what it would mean for their budgets.

The $3.03 billion total over two years is barely more than the $2.97 billion former Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed before leaving office, or the $2.99 billion House Republicans included in a partial budget outline last week.

But Senate Republicans called it a $300 million increase, several times as high as the numbers either Gregoire or House Republicans used to describe their plans. College officials said the Senate increase appears to be about $75 million to $100 million.

Why all the different totals? Different math. Typically, state-government budget “cuts” or “increases” don’t count carry-forward spending that is needed to carry out current law – such as school-employee salaries snapping back to their previous higher levels when unpaid furloughs end this June.

A balance sheet by nonpartisan staff provided by House Republicans calls their proposal a $48 million increase for higher education on top of carry-forward levels.

Republicans often deride such figures as “Olympia math,” and now that they have taken over the Senate with help from two Democrats, budgets may look different. “We’ll see a budget presented so people back home can understand it,” Baumgartner predicted.

Still, since Senate Republicans didn’t release a balance sheet or account for the carry-forward spending, it was difficult to compare their plan to others. University of Washington state-relations director Margaret Shepherd and community-college system director Marty Brown both said they were trying to figure out the numbers.

Universities had panned Gregoire’s proposal, saying they would need more money to freeze tuition. They also are unlikely to embrace Senate Republicans’ similar spending paired with a mandate to cut tuition by 3 percent in the 2013 school year and hold it steady in 2014.

Gov. Jay Inslee plans to update Gregoire’s plan, but he is waiting for the latest projections of state revenue due out today that will show whether the more than $1.2 billion budget shortfall has grown.

Senate Republicans were also waiting, which is why they declined to give details of how they would pay for their plan. They have said they will balance the budget and put something close to $1 billion into K-12 public schools while not raising taxes, which could require deep cuts in social services.

Republicans downplayed the difficulty, saying state revenue will be higher by 7 percent than the previous two years. “It’s not as though it’s a stagnant number. It increases all the time,” Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Barbara Bailey said of state revenue.

Democrats were holding their fire.

“We need to see what the whole picture looks like,” Sen. David Frockt of Seattle said, “but our position is, we’re positive on additional funding for higher education.”

Republicans want to attach strings to some of the money. They called for tying $50 million to specific performance standards, such as the time it takes to complete degrees and the number of science, technology, engineering and math degrees.

They said their plan would extend the state need grant to an additional 4,600 students and turn an unfunded liability in the state’s prepaid tuition program into a surplus by lowering tuition.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ @Jordan_Schrader Download the Capital Update app for iPad and iPhone for a seven-day free trial.

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