Parent-student group wants to put brakes on future tuition hikes

PHOENIX -- A group of parents and current and former students is taking the first steps to curb future tuition increases at state universities.

A measure being crafted would preclude the Arizona Board of Regents from annual increases that exceed inflation. Plans are to have some language ready this fall to put the question to voters on the 2016 ballot.

But Andy Barr, a political consultant helping to coordinate the campaign, acknowledged that a tuition cap, by itself, would be counterproductive if the universities could not make up for the kinds of cuts lawmakers have imposed.

So the initiative would include some sort of funding mechanism, perhaps a sales tax, that would kick in -- but only if lawmakers shorted the schools. And in that way, Barr said, residents would know exactly who to blame.

Mark Killian, chairman of the Board of Regents, said that, given the history of funding cuts, a ballot measure may be appropriate.

But Killian said he was not familiar with this proposal or even this group. And he said what ultimately emerges should be coordinated with the board.

Jay Heiler, who takes over in July from Killian, had a separate concern. He said any measure allowing tuition to go up with the consumer price index might actually result in some years in larger increases than the regents themselves might otherwise approve.

The proposal comes on the heels of proposals by the presidents of the three universities to hike tuition and fees -- and, in one case, impose a temporary surcharge -- on the heels of a $99 million cut in state aid to universities approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey. That cut state aid to about $650 million, compared with nearly $1.1 billion eight years earlier.

"Since 2009, tuition's gone up 80 percent,' Barr said. "Every time the Legislature cuts the universities, they have to raise tuition.'

At the same time, lawmakers have approved some major tax cuts for business, including a 30 percent reduction in corporate income tax rates.

"So we're trying to create a mechanism so when the Legislature wants to find another way to finance one of their tax cuts, or whatever, it's not students who end up picking up the bill,' Barr said.

Getting voters to approve a cap on tuition increases might be the easy part. Barr said internal polling puts support for that in the 70 percent range.

More complex is finding a way to make up the difference.

Barr said the details are still being worked out. But he said that, at this point, there are no plans to actually prohibit lawmakers from cutting funds or requiring annual increases in state aid.

What's more likely, he said, is some "revenue stream' that automatically kicks in if there are major cuts in university funding. That, however, means convincing voters to hike their own taxes -- even on a conditional basis.

The last tax increase approved by voters on a statewide basis was in 2010 when Jan Brewer, then governor, pushed through a temporary one-cent surcharge on the state's 5.6 percent sales tax to help balance the budget. A 2012 initiative to make that levy permanent, however, came up short, even with most of the funding earmarked for K-12 and universities.

Barr, however, said he's convinced the outcome for this would be different.

"You see consistently in polling that people would pay more for higher education,' he said. But that poll did not list a specific amount.

The key, said Barr, will be giving voters someone to blame. And that someone, he said, is the Arizona Legislature.

"We want to get out of a situation where they can cut and then later blame the Fred DuVals of the world for increasing tuition over and over again,' he said.

Last year the Republican Governors Association spent $2.2 million against DuVal, the Democrat candidate for governor last year, with commercials focusing on the fact that university tuition had doubled during the years he was on the Board of Regents. DuVal attempted to counter that the hikes were due to cuts in state funding.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia.

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