State Senate GOP leaders pledge $300 million for higher education

OLYMPIA -- On Tuesday, GOP leaders in the state Senate unveiled a plan to give $300 million more to higher education in Washington state.

They said increasing state money for colleges and universities will mean a big break for students in the form of lower tuition.

“We think a 10 percent increase in funding is a remarkable change from what’s been happening in past legislative sessions,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who spearheaded the proposal.

State support for higher education has been steadily cut in Washington, by more than 40 percent since 2007.  And tuition has risen at double digit rates to makes up the difference.

The Republican-led proposal would increase the state’s higher education budget to $3 billion over the next two years. Part of that would fund an across-the-board tuition cut of 3 percent for any student in the system. The biggest beneficiaries will be those attending the state’s most expensive schools such as the University of Washington and Washington State University.

“College tuition at over $11,000 per year is unacceptable,” said Baumgartner. “A normal student can’t get through that amount of school without a tremendous amount of debt.”

Included in the proposal is more financial aid, and a new $50 million fund awarded to schools that achieve certain benchmarks, including high freshmen retention rates.

Supporters offered no specifics about where the additional $300 million would come from, except to say it won’t require new taxes.

“With 7 percent more in revenue coming to the state, it’s just a matter of sitting down and making sure you follow through on those priorities first,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Currently, there are a lot of competing needs for that natural growth in state revenue, including a $1 billion hole in the operating budget and a Supreme Court mandate to find another $1 billion for K-12 education.

Two members of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and David Frockt, D-Seattle, released a statement after the announcement.  They said they were “encouraged” that Republicans want to add more money to higher education, but, they added, “We are not sure whether their numbers add up.”

“Our students need real solutions, not empty promises,” the statement said.