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2015 March 30 - 10:18 pm

Wash. Senate Passes Bill To Cut College Tuition

Bipartisan Measure Would Tie Tuition to Percentage of Average Wages

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington state Senate passed a bill to cut tuition at the state’s public universities and community colleges.

Senate Bill 5954, which passed on a 37- 12 bipartisan vote, would link tuition at state schools to a percentage of the average wage for Washington workers. It will now be considered by the House.

Tuition would be highest at the state’s two research universities, Washington State University and the University of Washington. At lower tiers, the state’s regional universities and community colleges would have their tuition rates set to lower percentages of the state’s average wage.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Sen. John Braun of Centralia, said tuition increases of recent years need to be undone to keep college affordable for Washingtonians.

“We’ve seen tuition rise at a rate that is just crushing for the middle class,” Braun said.

According to a report from the College Board, tuition at Washington’s public universities increased more during the recession than in any other state than Arizona, but still isn’t close to the highest public university tuition in the nation. From 2008 to 2014, Washington’s average in-state tuition increased by $4,085 in inflationadjusted dollars.

The Washington Legislature gave universities permission to raise tuition by double digit rates during the recession to make up for double-digit cuts in state appropriations for higher education. From 2008 to 2013, tuition and fees in Washington state rose 37 percent in inflationadjusted dollars, while state dollars going to higher education were cut by nearly 28 percent.

Students and parents caught up a little this year and last after the Legislature froze tuition for two school years.

In his budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed two more years without a tuition increase.

The cost of his tuition cuts are estimated to fall somewhere between $112 million and $232 million, depending on whether the bill’s full tuition decreases are enacted for the coming fiscal year. Several of the Democratic senators who voted against the bill said it lacks clarity on where the money to cover the cuts will come from. Without a clear funding source, they said, the bill constitutes an unfunded mandate.

“We’re all for lower tuition,” said Democratic Sen. David Frockt of Seattle. “We all want to see this change. The question is: can we fund it?” Braun countered that he believes money can be found in the state’s budget to cover the cost of his bill.

“All this is really talking about is making higher education a priority as we craft a $37 billion budget,” Braun said. “It doesn’t take funny money. It doesn’t take new money.”

Senate Republicans’ lead budget writer, Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican, said the money can be found for tuition cuts if the state elevates higher education funding to the same priority level as mental health care and early childhood education.

“I am confident, voting for this, that we can make it work,”’ Hill said.

If it passes in this legislative session, the bill would be in effect for the fall 2015 semester. Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, however, said he did not expect the Democrat-controlled House to approve the measure.

“I don’t expect this bill is headed for the governor’s desk anytime soon,” Hargrove said.

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