ANNAPOLIS – Capping tuition at Maryland universities seemed like it was an easy bill for the General Assembly, what with the blessing of Speaker of the House Michael Busch and 32 co-sponsors.
But the bill faced a tough road in the House and now may end with a veto by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a situation that would bring students tuition increases of 10 percent.
The General Assembly adopted higher education as its top priority this year and approved the 5 percent in-state undergraduate tuition cap Monday in its last frenzied hours. Ehrlich, however, immediately labeled it “veto bait” because it ties the cap to a 10 percent increase in the corporate tax.
“It’s another tax increase,” Ehrlich said, which makes his job “more difficult.”
A veto would assure previously-approved tuition increases of about 10 percent at the state’s public colleges and universities.
“If (Ehrlich) vetoes it, he’s choosing corporate interests over student tuition,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery.
While the University System of Maryland does not endorse specific revenue plans, the bill does provide significant stability for families, said System Chancellor William Kirwan.
“I understand that other considerations will come into play,” he said, “(but) the essence of this bill would be very, very good for the University System and I hope that a way can be found for it to be passed.”
Kirwan said he’ll ask Ehrlich to sign the bill.
Lawmakers worked hard to craft a bill that Ehrlich could accept, said Delegate Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, who was tapped by Busch to head the task force that recommended the plan.
“We were hearing from our constituents throughout the state,” about tuition increases, she said. “We have a lot to be proud of and I would hate to jeopardize that.”
The plan would cap annual tuition increases at 5 percent and raise the corporate tax from 7 percent to 7.7 percent for three years. In addition, funding for higher education would increase 3.4 percent this year and 5 percent the following two years.
“It would give the system a predictable source of revenue,” Kirwan said. “It would do a lot to tide us over.”
Businesses are attracted to states with strong higher education systems, Jones said, and so they should not be averse to the bill.
“We have a great university system that businesses look at,” she said. “I think (Ehrlich will) realize the importance the institutions have in the business community.”
About $122 million was cut from higher education last year, leading to tuition increases of up to 21 percent at some campuses and a task force appointed by Busch to study access and affordability.
Lawmakers agreed they would put higher education in the spotlight this year, even though the University System of Maryland received level-funding. It was “up very near the top” of the agenda, Hogan said.
The bill extends the General Assembly’s interest by creating a commission to study state support of the University System of Maryland and Morgan State University.
Also on the Legislature’s radar was a proposal to grant illegal aliens in-state tuition status provided they meet academic, tax and other requirements. The bill died unexpectedly Monday after a senator who had committed to the bill changed his mind and abstained from voting in committee.
“We’re disappointed,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We don’t understand why they didn’t vote (for it) this year.”
A similar bill passed the House and Senate last year, but was vetoed by Ehrlich. The bill’s sponsors said they hoped changes this year would appeal to him and assure passage.
But Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, said he decided not to vote on the bill in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee late Monday night because it was too controversial to consider with only hours left of the legislative session.
“There would have been a filibuster,” he said. “It would have been overwhelming.”
In other higher education legislation, Coppin State College was renamed Coppin State University and the University System of Maryland was granted greater authority in hiring during a state-imposed hiring freeze and approving new programs.
“This suddenly gives us,” Kirwan said, “much greater flexibility to use our resources in the most effective and efficient way.”