Bring tuition bill to a vote

In a rare and welcome display of bipartisanship on a major policy issue, the Senate on Monday passed a bill that would allow the state’s three largest four-year universities more flexibility in setting tuition rates. SB 6562 would help the universities maintain quality and accessibility, and it strikes a careful balance between those objectives and affordability for state residents.

Now, though, the opposition of a single legislator could shoot it down. Word in the Capitol is that House Higher Education Committee Chair Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver), who opposes the bill, might not grant it a hearing or vote, effectively killing it.

If that’s the case, we urge her to change course. Her opposition can be registered with a “no” vote, but she shouldn’t be allowed to bottle up an important bill that appears to have enough committee votes to head to the floor.

If she’s determined to stop the bill, House leaders should move it to the Education Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Kathy Haigh (D-Shelton), sponsor of the House companion bill to the original version of SB 6562.

But they mustn’t cede power over the bill’s fate to a single lawmaker. Such short-circuiting of the democratic process is a long-standing flaw in the legislative process in Olympia that bears changing. (We’ll make that argument another day.)

The presidents of the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University have made impassioned arguments for greater authority in setting undergraduate tuition, and are supported by the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, the League of Education voters, business groups and local governments. The reason: Dramatic cuts in state funding the past two years have put the universities’ mission in jeopardy, putting the state and its students at a growing competitive disadvantage.

Universities are complex, diverse entities that understand their own budgets and pricing structures better than lawmakers in Olympia, who have many other issues on which to dwell. As passed by the Senate, the bill protects students by capping tuition increases at 14 percent in any given year; the 15-year average can’t exceed 9 percent. Tuition for resident undergraduates also can’t exceed 75 percent of average undergrad tuition at a selection of comparable public institutions in other states.

There’s little doubt that proposals for tuition hikes would be the subject of vigorous debate and thorough review among campus communities. That’s where such debates matter the most. It’s where they should take place.

Allowing House debate on this bill to be squelched be before it can even begin, though, would reveal a Legislature with an alarming inability to govern. This bill deserves a full hearing, and vote.

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