Critics call UM freeze an election `gimmick'

Democrats seek to erase approved tuition increase


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. calls University of Maryland tuition "the best deal in the universe," but the students who entered college the year he was elected may not think so.

The College Park freshmen of 2002 have seen their tuitions increase by 35 percent. Before that class arrived on campus, about 22 percent of Maryland students had to borrow money at some point in their careers. Now, the figure is 47 percent.

Sensing a potent political issue at their fingertips, Democrats in the General Assembly are working on an election-year plan to eliminate tuition increases at state university campuses next year.

Led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a 1964 College Park alumnus, top lawmakers want to erase the 4.5 percent tuition increase approved recently for most campuses by the university system Board of Regents. The regents -- a majority of whom were appointed by Ehrlich -- adopted the increase despite a record funding boost for the University System of Maryland contained in the governor's budget this year.

Miller and other Democrats say rising tuition at Maryland schools amounts to a huge tax increase on the middle class, undermining the impact of Ehrlich's pledge -- which he has kept -- not to raise sales or income taxes.

"Students and parents are paying a hidden tax, subsidizing state government through heavy tuition increases, and the Senate of Maryland is going to say, `Enough is enough,'" Miller said.

Both of the Democratic candidates for governor -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley -- have also pushed for controls on tuition increases.

"There's a tremendous amount of anxiety in our state about the inability of working families to pay for a college education for their children," O'Malley said. "We need a governor who realizes [higher education] is not some laudable charity but rather the basis upon which a strong economy in this modern age depends."

But it's unclear whether the Ehrlich administration would back a move by the legislature to get more money for the university system.

"This is part of a bigger trend of trying to usurp the governor's executive power," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "This isn't about freezing tuition. This is about trying to one-up the governor, and hopefully those who are dedicated to higher education in the state will see through this election-year gimmick."

In general, the executive sets the state budget, and the legislature can only cut from it. But lawmakers have frequently sidestepped that restriction by cutting money from one program and enacting language stipulating that it can only be spent on another one of the legislature's choosing.

Last year, the Ehrlich administration balked at this practice, saying it overstepped the legislature's authority. The governor refused to allocate money to support prenatal care for immigrant women, grants for failing schools, cancer research and other programs, mostly as a matter of principle.

Miller said the Senate is considering a variety of sources for the money, including some reserve funds or extra money budgeted for university employee health care. Lawmakers are looking to fund a one-year freeze, not long-term tuition control.

University system officials -- and some students -- say they worry that the legislature will move to freeze tuition at the expense of other campus operations and improvements.

Regents Chairman David Nevins said the board's mission is to maintain quality, affordability and access to the institution, and he and his colleagues believe that allowing a 4.5 percent tuition increase at most campuses best achieves that balance.

Leaving tuition flat would cost the system about $19 million in revenues, jeopardizing attempts to expand capacity at Towson and Salisbury universities and increase need-based financial aid, he said. Plans to augment academic programs or create new ones could also be at risk, he said.

"If there is a way developed for us to further moderate even this moderate tuition increase, we would give it, I think, serious consideration," Nevins said.

University of Maryland, College Park President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. testified before House and Senate panels over the past several days in support of the tuition increase, saying it is necessary to maintain and improve educational quality.

But after several years of large increases in costs, Mote said, he is increasingly worried about the debt levels of graduating students, an acute problem for middle-income families. Among academically qualified students, those whose parents earn between $40,000 and $60,000 a year are the least likely to go to college, he said.

"The middle-class people are stressed a lot by the costs of higher education," Mote said. "They have less access to financial aid, and they have the same costs."

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