State Senate leaders vow to increase higher ed funding

OLYMPIA — A group of Washington state senators vowed Tuesday to increase funding for higher education by $300 million but declined to say how they would get the money at a time when lawmakers already are struggling to balance the budget.

Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who developed the plan supported by a GOP-dominated coalition, said it is possible to write a budget that balances state spending while increasing funding for state colleges and universities. He said it will be a matter of prioritizing where government dollars go.

“We’re going to make higher education a priority,” Baumgartner said.

Lawmakers already face a more than $1 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget cycle and are separately under court order to expand funding for K-12 education.

The senators also propose to require a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students. They say this will help manage the long-term financial concerns in the state’s prepaid tuition program.

Margaret Shepherd, director of state relations for the University of Washington, was still waiting for more specific details on the Senate proposal. However, she said the $300 million appears to largely include money already expected to go to the institutions for general growth. She said the proposal adds only about $75 million in new money to the system and that gain is offset by the loss in tuition dollars.

“It will not provide adequate funding for the investments that we need to make in order to provide a high-quality education for our students,” Shepherd said.

Washington’s university presidents said earlier this year that the schools would freeze tuition for two years if lawmakers would add $225 million in extra funding to the system.

Under the Senate plan, $50 million of the new higher education money would be awarded to schools based on metrics, such as the number of undergraduates in degrees such as science or engineering, the retention rate of first-year students, and the average time it takes to complete an undergraduate degree.

Democrats in the Senate said in a statement they are encouraged that the GOP-leaning majority is embracing increased funding but want to better understand the details of the proposal.

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