Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is considering asking lawmakers to impose a limit on public university tuition increases, a move that would provide relief to students and parents who have faced double-digit increases but would deprive the University System of Maryland of revenue during a time of budget cuts.
Ehrlich and top aides discussed the heated issue of tuition increases during a staff meeting yesterday, and the governor said momentum is building for the administration to introduce legislation calling for "some sort of freeze."
Future tuition increases could be tied to a cost-of-living index or growth in state personal income under some scenarios, the governor said.
"We are researching different approaches in that direction," Ehrlich said. Although similar legislation has been proposed in the past, "it's fair to say we are discussing it in a more serious way," he said.
He also suggested that school officials had not done enough to cut spending.
University officials expressed surprise at Ehrlich's comments, saying they had heard nothing about the possible limit, which they said could have dire consequences if implemented without increases in state funding for higher education.
"Quite frankly, I'm very surprised," said system Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "I've been ... in communication with the governor, and no one ever mentioned or even hinted at anything like [a limit]."
Ehrlich's comments represent a shift in the intensifying debate over skyrocketing tuition at the state's public colleges. Tuition increased, on average, about 20 percent this fall at the system's 11 campuses - more than $1,000 for many families - and could increase as much as 20 percent next fall.
During recent months, many system regents and university officials who recommended and voted on the increases sought to blame them on the $120 million that has been cut from the system's state appropriation, which totaled $865 million last year, most of it under Ehrlich's watch.
The large tuition increases would be unnecessary, they said, if Ehrlich had provided enough new revenue to pay for the rising costs of public higher education.
The fast pace of tuition growth also seems to follow the desires of Richard E. Hug, an Ehrlich appointee to the Board of Regents and the governor's chief campaign fund-raiser. Hug has suggested doubling tuition to reduce reliance on state funding and to signal that the universities provide high-quality education.
With yesterday's statements, Ehrlich seemed intent on deflecting responsibility for the large increases back onto the regents and university officials who enacted them.
"We are concerned about the pace of restructuring" in the university system, Ehrlich said. "It's another agency that should not be immune to restructuring."
Asked if he thought university administrators - who have seen enormous salary increases in recent years - were paid too much, Ehrlich said, "I think that's a good discussion to have."
Kirwan disputed last night that university officials bore any responsibility for the large tuition increases.
The system had done all it could to cut costs before proceeding with the increases, he said.
The system has eliminated more than 600 positions, many of which were vacant, he said. For the current school year, Kirwan said, tuition increases made up only about $75 million of the system's $200 million budget deficit.
"We've already demonstrated a pretty high degree of efficiency to do these cuts and perform at the same high level," Kirwan said. "If anyone starts talking about restructuring and efficiency, we hope they will recognize the work we've already done."
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is active in higher-education issues, said Ehrlich's idea would strip the system of quality.
"It is a death knell for the effort to make Maryland universities world-class institutions," Franchot said. "It's a one-way ticket to the University of Mississippi."
Tuition-increase limits are also a topic of discussion in Congress. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, introduced a bill this month that would withhold federal aid from private and public colleges that increase tuition more than twice the rate of inflation.
Kirwan said last night that limiting tuition to the rate of inflation "is not possible," and that he hoped that "if anybody is thinking of a bill of this nature, that there will be opportunity to discuss the rather calamitous consequences of putting a price control on the university."
D. Philip Shockley, the student representative on the Board of Regents, called tying tuition to inflation "a great idea, but only if the state increases its support."
"If the state doesn't come through, it hurts us more than it helps," he said.
In recent weeks, the tuition debate has taken on political overtones. General Assembly Democrats have sharpened their criticism of Ehrlich, saying that even though he opposes sales and income tax increases, the tuition hikes under his watch constitute a tax increase on the middle class - pricing them out of the higher-education market.
State House Speaker Michael E. Busch has created a commission to study university costs and tuition, and university students have protested in Annapolis, calling Ehrlich "Public Enemy No. 1."