House passes bill to cap tuition
PHOENIX - The Arizona House of Representatives passed a bill late Monday that would cap tuition hikes at the state's three universities and take control away from the Arizona Board of Regents.
The bill, which the House passed by a 40-19 vote, would prevent the Regents from setting tuition higher than the rate of inflation, plus one percent.
Inflation has hovered around 2.56 percent during the past eight years, meaning Regents could raise tuition up to 3.56 percent during an academic year. Last November, the Regents approved a 4.6 percent hike that will increase in-state tuition at the UA to $2,258 each year.
"It's not an anti-Regents bill - just pro-students," said Rep. Mike Gardner, R-Tempe, sponsor of the proposal.
Bill 2338 would provide a guaranteed protection for students who have seen tuition increase dramatically compared to the economy's growth, he said.
At the center of the debate surrounding the bill is whether or not the Legislature has the authority to dictate how the Regents set tuition.
Judy Gignac, the Regents' president, said the state is over-stepping its bounds by trying to dictate the amount the Regents charge students.
"Setting tuition is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Regents," she said. "The Board is very opposed to this bill."
Gignac said the bill would have a serious impact on the revenues collected by the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.
"It would be like telling the Legislature that they have no right to generate revenues for the state of Arizona," she said. "I fear for the future quality and accessibility of our public universities in Arizona."
A decision from Arizona's top law enforcement official regarding a provision in the state's constitution could tip the scales in the argument over the bill.
Lawmakers asked Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano for her interpretation of a clause in the Arizona Constitution that says instruction should be "as nearly free as possible."
Napolitano has yet to issue her decision in the matter, although both Gardner and Gignac said they would welcome any insight that Napolitano has to offer.
"It's a very important question that needs to be answered," Gardner said.
Gardner contends the Regents have interpreted the phrase to mean tuition should be in the bottom third of all 50 states.
Tuition rates at Arizona's three universities are the 49th lowest in the country, but debate escalated after legislators heard that the Regents were considering an plan that would raise tuition 10 percent during the next five years.
Now that the bill has cleared the House, it moves over to the Senate where committee members will pick up the debate.