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Tuition cap proposal approved

By Brett Erickson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 3, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona's constitution guarantees that higher education "shall be as nearly free as possible." Rep. Mike Gardner R-Tempe, said

PHOENIX - Despite objections by the Arizona Board of Regents, a student-supported proposal to limit the Board's ability to set university tuition won its first battle in the Arizona legislature yesterday.

HB 2338 would cap tuition hikes at the rate of inflation plus one percent. Supporters say the move would lower cost increases for students who have seen tuition rise about 5 percent in each of the past five years - about $100 per year.

The bill passed the House of Representatives Public Institutions and Universities Committee on a 4-2 vote.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Gardner, R-Tempe, said Arizona's constitution guarantees that higher education "shall be as nearly free as possible." He said the bill is a step toward ensuring that state universities remain accessible to as many students as possible.

"The amount of money we're taking from students is going up and up and up, and that bothers me," he said.

Last November, the regents approved a 4.7 percent tuition increase that begins with the 1999-2000 school year.

The bill has raised concerns among regents and officials who said the law, if passed, would hamper the Board's ability to act in the best interest of the universities.

"It limits the authority of the board to effectively set tuition," said Frank Besnette, executive director of the board. Besnette said it is the regents' job, not state lawmakers', to determine what "as nearly free as possible" means.

Regents' President Judy Gignac said until now, the board has interpreted "as nearly free as possible" to mean tuition should fall in the lower third of all states. In 1998-99 in-state tuition at University of Arizona and Arizona State University was $2,158, placing the state among the cheapest two or three state schools in the country.

Gignac said the proposal, coupled with a legislative proposal to cut $15 million from university budgets, would have a "detrimental impact" on the higher education system's financial security.

"We're concerned about the continued quality of our universities," Gignac said.

But, the proposal has already won support from the Arizona Student Association (ASA), the student lobbying organization whose board unanimously endorsed the bill last month.

Associated Students President Tara Taylor, an ASA board member, said the group was simply following the advice of the regents.

"We're doing what we've been told to do from day one, which is to go to legislature because the game was with them not with the regents," Taylor said.

The proposal to tie tuition to the Gross Domestic Product inflation rate is similar to a concept ASA has been pushing for the last six or seven years said UA ASA director Adam Talenfeld.

The proposal, Talenfeld said, runs contrary to suggestions made by UA President Peter Likins, who last fall suggested the regents work to increase university tuition from the bottom to near the top of 30th percentile nationally, and increase the availability of financial aid.

"It's real easy to raise tuition - it's real hard to raise financial aid," Talenfeld said.

Rep. Jean McGrath, R-Glendale, who chairs the Institutions and Universities Committee, said she thinks tuition increases are necessary "from time to time," but the bill will put a reasonable cap on the hikes.

McGrath told the committee that she has asked Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano for her opinion on the meaning of "as nearly free as possible."

McGrath said she did not know if Napolitano would respond to her request by the time HB 2338 goes before the full house, some time in the next two months.

Gignac said an opinion from Napolitano could help the regents as well as the legislators.

"I welcome the request for an attorney general opinion - if she'll provide one," she said.

Following a house vote, the bill would need approval from the Senate before moving to governor's desk.