UM students form PAC to protest tuition rise

Activists seek seat at table in future budget talks

October 21, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Denouncing rising tuition as a "tax increase" and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as "Public Enemy No. 1," student activists from the University of Maryland, College Park launched a political action committee yesterday to protect higher education from further state budget cuts.

The announcement of the new systemwide student advocacy group occurred shortly after House Speaker Michael E. Busch announced the formation of a temporary legislative committee to study the access and affordability of the state's higher-education system.

Busch expressed disagreement over recent tuition increases, as well as proposals to push them even higher.

"We're already a high-cost state," he said, pointing to lower tuitions in Virginia and North Carolina.

The drumbeat over tuition costs continued as another senior lawmaker called for the resignation of an Ehrlich appointeewho has called for doubling tuition levels.

Ehrlich was the chief target of the students' anger as they announced the formation of the Student Citizens Action Network and an associated PAC and set a goal of raising $50,000 over the next 90 days.

"He's the person that's Public Enemy No. 1 in our eyes," said Tim Daly, student government president at the University of Maryland College Park and chairman of the new PAC.

Daly said the student network and its PAC would give students "a seat at the table" in future budget deliberations. "This is beyond just having a sit-in, a protest, a march or a rally," he said.

One of the House panel's first actions will be to hold a public hearing next month at College Park, giving the student group an early opportunity to protest tuition increases of more than 30 percent during the past two years.

Busch named Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who serves as speaker pro tem, as chair of the bipartisan panel of 24 House members.

College costs are seen by some leading Democrats as an issue that could drive a wedge between the popular governor and his middle-class constituency.

"Some of these kids are going to march this January and February with their parents in Annapolis against tuition increases," said Del. Peter Franchot, one of two Democratic lawmakers who participated in the news conference. "It's not an issue Ehrlich enjoys because it goes right at his base."

Franchot became the first senior Democratic lawmaker to publicly call for the resignation of Richard Hug, Ehrlich's top campaign fund-raiser and as a member of the state university system's Board of Regents. Hug was one of Ehrlich's first appointees to the board.

Hug has inflamed campus opinion by publicly urging a doubling of in-state tuition at College Park and other state colleges over the next five years to raise their prestige. Yesterday, Hug said he's staying on the board, even though the governor has said he's against doubling tuition.

"You think Peter Franchot's going to drive me off the Board of Regents and out of the state of Maryland? Come on," Hug said. His proposal, he said, is a responsible one that would provide adequate financial aid to the middle class as well as lower-income families.

Student leaders were in no hurry to let Ehrlich off the hook for his appointee's ideas.

"The buck stops with him and who he's appointed," said Daly.

Since inheriting a $1.2 billion budget shortfall when he became governor, Ehrlich has cut about $120 million from higher-education spending.

The cuts prompted the regents to raise tuition at state campuses last year by about 20 percent. Last week, they approved another set of increases, from 6 percent at Coppin State College to 11.4 percent at College Park.

Student leaders say they fear they could be facing another 10 percent increase in the spring if Ehrlich doesn't include about $50 million in addition to the spending he has promised. Hug said yesterday that it is "highly improbable" that the funds will be available.

The small group of students at the news conference yesterday were from College Park, but Daly said one of the student network's priorities is to organize at all 11 schools in the University System of Maryland and two independently funded public colleges.

Daly said the group plans a grass-roots campaign that will include direct mail, face-to-face lobbying and other mobilization.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor welcomes the formation of the student PAC, calling it a more productive response than previous, more theatrical protests, such as one in which they gave the governor a "gift" of a rusty Ford Pinto.

"Forming a PAC, that is one way that's treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves," she said.

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