Ehrlich proposal holds line on tuition

Funding request includes voting machines, guards

General Assembly

March 17, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Tuition rates at Maryland public universities would be frozen next year under a plan unveiled yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., giving parents and students a welcome break after years of large increases in the cost of higher education.

The move to eliminate a 4.5 percent rise in tuition is a major shift for the Ehrlich administration, which earlier this year derided Democrats' calls for a freeze as "hollow campaign rhetoric" and an "election-year gimmick."

Ehrlich said at the time that he did not want to interfere with decisions of the University System Board of Regents, which sets the rates.

But a day after the Senate gave preliminary approval to a plan that would erase tuition increases by tapping excess money from an employee health fund, Ehrlich followed suit in a $433 million spending request known as a supplemental budget.

The spending proposal includes $21.8 million to lease optical-scan voting machines for this year's elections as a temporary replacement for a much-criticized Diebold touch-screen system and $5.4 million to hire 160 more corrections officers.

Previously, Ehrlich had rejected Democrats' calls for a tuition freeze because he thought lawmakers wanted to cut other education programs to make up the difference, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. The new proposal provides the necessary investments to keep tuition level, he said.

"The governor believes it was the right thing to do," Fawell said. "You combine it with his plan to double funding for need-based college scholarships, and he's making college affordable for thousands of students."

Leading Democrats said the governor had finally acknowledged that years of tuition increases have been hard on middle-class families.

"He did what he thought was best for education, and the General Assembly said it wasn't enough," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Now the governor says, `Me, too.'"

Amid tough fiscal times early in his administration, Ehrlich cut hundreds of millions of dollars for higher education from his budgets, and state universities made up much of the difference by charging sharply higher tuition.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, for example, tuition increased by 35 percent over the past four years, rising from $5,784 to $7,821 for in-state students. The total cost to send an in-state student to College Park is now $19,501 per year, including room, board, fees and expenses.

The governor proposed a record funding increase for higher education this year, but the Board of Regents still voted to increase tuition by 4.5 percent at most system schools. Regents said the increase would generate about $19 million, money needed to improve campuses.

With the added $18.1 million proposed by the governor, regents Chairman David H. Nevins said yesterday that the board would probably vote at its next meeting to eliminate the tuition increase.

"Our concern all along was that we don't want money taken away from important new programs ... and growth initiatives and the like," Nevins said. "We didn't raise tuition because we like to. We raised it because we had to."

Student leaders had lobbied extensively in the past few weeks for lawmakers to find more money for the university system.

Brian S. Bailey, a junior and president of the student government at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said he was excited that the governor had decided to back the tuition freeze.

"This means a lot to middle-class families, people struggling with their Pell Grants being less, and not enough financial aid to go around," Bailey said.

Democrats had been hoping to use the tuition issue to distinguish themselves from the governor in an election year. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, urged Ehrlich in January to freeze tuition. Yesterday, he wrote a letter thanking the governor for changing his position.

"Given the strain placed on Maryland's hard-working families the last few years, we think such a plan is not only the right thing to do - it is the smart thing to do," O'Malley wrote. "Our students, economy and society will all benefit."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has also pushed for controls on tuition increases and a new scholarship program for Maryland students. Spokeswoman Jody Couser said in an e-mail that Duncan is pleased by the governor's move but believes it doesn't go far enough.

"While this is good news for the students and parents facing tuition bills now, it is only a short-term fix, unlike the long-term solution Doug Duncan proposed in his higher education plan," Couser said.

A continued strong economy has given Ehrlich more money to deal with some of the more urgent topics under discussion during the 90-day General Assembly session, which ends in less than a month. The added money comes from higher-than-expected income, sales and transfer tax receipts.

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