Rising tuition has Ehrlich boxed in

Opposed to tax increases, governor considers cap

November 02, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Boxed in by the emerging politics of tuition, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took his first steps last week toward extracting himself by suggesting that a tuition cap plan was worthy of study and could be promoted by his administration.

Democrats have been pounding the governor, insisting that cuts he made to the university system budget translated into college cost increases that were the equivalent of a tax increase on the same families who voted him into office.

"It's a working-class, middle-class tax hike," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Critics howled when one of his advisers and top fund-raisers, Richard E. Hug, an Ehrlich appointee to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, suggested that tuition be raised further. Students have also been raising their voices, through protests and the formation of a political action committee.

Last week, Ehrlich seemed to get the message. Responding to a question on a radio call-in show, the governor disclosed that he and his aides were discussing ways to limit tuition growth, possibly through a law that would link it to inflation or another index.

"I think there needs to be some degree of certainty," Ehrlich said yesterday.

With that, a governor who has steadfastly opposed increases in sales and income taxes has placed another goal on the list: restraining the growth of college costs. Tuition rates rose by up to 20 percent this fall and could increase by a similar amount next year.

Political observers said that the governor's latest position reflects an acknowledgement of the unpopularity of rising fees, despite his administration's earlier stance that prices were still affordable and the views of top appointees such as Hug.

"Maybe he [Ehrlich] realizes that there was a little mistake here in the way he's addressing the problem," said Del. Brian R. Moe, a Prince George's County Democrat whose district includes the University of Maryland, College Park campus. "I think he's re-evaluating it. And I think that needs to be done."

A poll released last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that 83 percent of Marylanders oppose Hug's plan to double tuition over five years, with the number slightly higher among Republicans. Hug had suggested the plan as a way to raise money for the system and enhance its prestige.

"They've become more attuned to what's popular, and what's not popular, from polling," said Busch. "And this is a very unpopular issue."

Ehrlich denied that he was responding to polls or political pressure. "We have been talking about this for months," he said. "I don't want to demagogue on it, and we're not going to."

The governor also rejected Democrats' arguments that university cost increases amounted to tax increases on the middle and working classes. "Tuition can increase, but if financial aid increases accordingly, then there is no net out-of-pocket [cost] to a particular family," he said.

But the governor was not shy about saying that a tuition cap, coupled with lower levels of state aid - a budget item he controls - could force the university system to trim expenses.

Public universities took a $120 million hit in their state funding in the past year, and school officials have been blaming the resulting tuition increases on the governor. But Ehrlich is trying to turn the tables on that debate, arguing that the college administration has failed to control costs or seek efficiencies while balancing its budget on the backs of students.

"We obviously have been advocating quietly, and now a little less quietly, the need for structural change in the system," the governor said.

Legislative leaders criticized Ehrlich's tuition cap plan, saying the approach would only work if coupled with a guarantee of increases in state aid.

From 1996 to 2001, the system kept tuition growth to 4 percent yearly through an informal arrangement, while state funds increased by double-digit percentages, in an effort to build quality.

"I think he's a day late and a dollar short," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a strong advocate of University of Maryland, College Park. "Damage has been done to higher education."

Miller said that for the first time, parents and students are paying more of the actual cost of education through tuition than the state is providing in budget money, undermining a traditional principle of land-grant colleges.

"The governor has to be the governor of all the people, not just the radical right wing of his party," Miller said. "He has to realize that all Marylanders don't get to go to Princeton and Gilman [Ehrlich's alma maters]."

While Ehrlich's proposal to cap tuition increases has startled many university officials, it is not without precedent.

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