Attempt in budget to limit tuition increases splits General Assembly

3/12/2016 –

The last day of the 2016 General Assembly session began badly for presidents and other representatives of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, who were rebuked by top leaders of the House Appropriations Committee for attempting to prevent the pending two-year state budget from limiting the institutions’ ability to raise student tuition.

Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, and Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, chairman of the higher education subcommittee, delivered the private scolding to a half-dozen presidents, as well as other representatives of almost every public college or university in the state.

It focused on what they perceived as an attempt by “several” university presidents to bypass them in order to undercut a proposed 3 percent cap on tuition increases, despite a House budget proposal that was much more generous to higher education than either the Senate or Gov. Terry McAuliffe had offered.

“The language was extremely important to us,” Cox said in an interview Saturday. “We wanted some guarantee that if we put in that kind of money, tuition would not go up significantly.”

The higher education package, including more than $115 million in direct aid to colleges and universities, was a central achievement of a budget that McAuliffe and the General Assembly built to repair the damage done by deep state spending cuts during the recession.

The budget also made major new investments in K-12 public education, economic development and academic research, mental health and substance-use disorder treatment, as well as compensation for state employees, teachers, college faculty and state-supported local employees such as sheriff’s deputies.

It also fully funds the state’s required contribution to state employee and teacher retirement plans, while paying off a big debt to the retirement system six years early.

But the budget the General Assembly adopted also established policies meant to relieve families from big tuition increases and local school divisions from providing matching funds in order to receive state aid.

“The common thread is to relieve the taxpayer,” said House Appropriations Staff Director Robert P. Vaughn.

The budget adopted late Friday does not place a cap on tuition increases without approval of the governor, as the House had proposed. Instead, it includes language that directs colleges and universities to submit tuition increases to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the leaders of the assembly money committees for review but not approval.

“It did provide some transparency to the process,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, who also is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chairman of its higher education subcommittee.

However, concern over rising tuition and student debt exposed what Norment called a philosophical difference between the House of Delegates and the Senate over the legislature’s role in shaping decisions by the boards of visitors appointed to set policies at public colleges and universities.

“The boards of visitors have not abdicated their autonomy to set tuition and fees,” said Norment, who did not consider the proposed House cap to be “acceptable.”

House budget leaders, however, were upset when a small group of university presidents went to Senate budget negotiators with their concerns about any budget restraint on tuition increases without also talking to them.

“I was extremely disappointed at the actions of several of the presidents, especially in light of the additional money and resources that we allocated to higher education,” said Jones.

He also cited increases in state funding for financial aid, a 3 percent pay raise for faculty salaries and the early payoff of a pension obligation that reduced the institutions’ payroll costs by about 1 percent.

“We work on relationships and trust,” Jones said, “and that has been damaged through this process.”

Norment defended the actions of university presidents in representing their institutions in the budget process the same as any other lobbying interest.

“I don’t think higher education made any effort to go around the budgetary process,” he said.

Norment acknowledged that the college and university presidents “got called to the woodshed” on Friday for a meeting that he had sought to attend but did not, at Jones’ request.

“I don’t think you can put a gag order on the chief executive officers of institutions of higher education just because one branch of the General Assembly might not like what you’re doing,” he said.

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Nothing had higher priority in the budget McAuliffe proposed in December than restoring state investments in K-12 public education, which had lost thousands of teaching positions since 2009.

The governor proposed major spending initiatives, including the hiring of 2,500 teachers and raising teacher salaries. The General Assembly went further, adding significantly more money while giving local school divisions more flexibility in how they spend it and without requiring them to use local money to match the state.

“State funding for our public schools deteriorated during the recession, forcing our communities to reduce staff and adopt various austerity measures,” McAuliffe said in a parting letter to legislators on Friday. “With this budget, we send a clear message that state leaders are ready to shoulder our fair share of responsibility for providing Virginia students with a world-class education.”

“Just as important, this budget recognizes the partnership that exists on education and accommodates the unique needs of each community, providing local schools with the flexibility they need to excel,” he said.

The key to the budget approved Friday is a House proposal to use the Virginia Lottery to send money to local school divisions on a per-pupil basis without requiring local matching funds.

Before 2010, when the state slashed education spending to balance the budget, about 40 percent of the lottery proceeds went to K-12. The new budget sends about $194 million in new spending to local school divisions, or the equivalent of 29 percent of lottery proceeds.

It does so in part by redirecting money proposed by McAuliffe, including about $35 million that the governor intended to help school divisions with high at-risk student populations. Only $14.2 million of the nearly $50 million proposed by McAuliffe remains to increase support of at-risk schools.

The assembly’s approach was welcomed by local government and teachers, who will receive a 2 percent pay increase on Dec. 1, subject to local match.

“We believe this agreement puts us on the right path forward,” said Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association. “Significant new state resources are going to help local schools that were stretched thin by drastic program cuts.”

James J. Regimbal Jr., fiscal consultant to the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, said local governments “like the flexibility” provided by the adopted budget for K-12 spending.

“It’s a start in restoring funding to public education, but just a start,” he said. “At least they’re prioritizing it.”

By MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch