By Steve Hill
The 2002 legislative session opens Monday in Olympia with a $1.25 billion problem.
That’s the shortfall lawmakers must overcome to meet the legal requirement of a balanced budget. Cuts on campus will likely be a part of any solution if Gov. Gary Locke’s proposal is a good indication. The governor issued his budget on Dec. 18, proposing a $56 million reduction in higher education funding. The UW operating budget would be cut by more than
$18 million if the proposal were signed into law.
But that’s unlikely. The governor’s proposal was the first step in budget negotiations that are expected to dominate the 60-day supplemental legislative session. A Senate budget proposal is expected next – probably late next month. In the interim, UW officials will continue to emphasize the importance of adequate funding.
“We understand the difficult situation facing our state’s legislators,” President Richard L. McCormick said. “Money is simply going to be hard to come by. But we will continue to make the case that cutting the higher education budget, and especially the UW’s budget, would be a step backward for the people of Washington.”
The governor also proposed local tuition-setting authority for the state’s colleges and universities, which was met with cautious optimism by UW officials.
“This is just the beginning of the discussion,” said Associate Vice Provost Gary Quarfoth. “But we’re very interested in continuing the discussion with the Legislature over tuition authority. It would certainly give us more flexibility and control over how we run the University.”
Currently the Legislature caps tuition hikes that regents can impose. During the last budget session, for example, lawmakers limited the tuition increase to 6.7 percent for the 2001-02 academic year.
A UW education is, arguably, undervalued in comparison to its peer institutions. In-state tuition for full-time undergraduates at the University is a little less than $4,000 annually. On average the 25 institutions considered UW peers by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board charge in-state undergraduates 15 percent more in tuition. During the last session a move to give institutions authority over all but in-state undergraduate tuition was eventually defeated.
The UW Board of Regents held a special meeting on Tuesday to consider the implications of the governor’s budget proposal.
McCormick and Dick Thompson, director of the Office of Government Relations, said the message for legislators during the upcoming 60-day session would be that now is not the time to cut higher education, especially at the UW.
Thompson said he will highlight UW contributions to a healthy state economy, point out that demand for higher education is increasing, and note that the state can’t expect students to shoulder the burden for reduced public investment.
In fact, to make up the University’s $18 million gap with tuition increases alone isn’t even an option according to UW officials. Such an increase would be in the neighborhood of 20 percent, or roughly $800 annually for in-state undergraduates. But the ability to set tuition and to increase student financial aid for low- and middle-income students would give the UW some budgeting flexibility.
Other items in the governor’s budget proposal that would affect UW employees include:
- A delay of two months for the annual cost-of-living pay raises. Locke proposed that the state portion of any UW pay increases would be 2.6 percent. But instead of the normal July 1 increase, the governor would withhold pay hikes for all state employees until Sept. 1, saving a total of $8.5 million.
- More expensive health benefits. Starting in January 2003 the average office visit co-pay for state employees covered by managed-care plans would increase from $10 to $20 and the average employee share of health plans would increase from 8 to 10 percent.