Democrats Try to Hold Tuition Flat In Maryland

By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tuition would not rise at Maryland's public universities in the fall, under legislation introduced yesterday by Democratic leaders of the Maryland Senate.

The Democrats said the bill is needed to ensure that the University System of Maryland remains affordable after a string of tuition increases that have raised the cost of higher education by more than 40 percent at some campuses since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took office.

The Board of Regents has approved a 4.5 percent increase at most campuses that would take effect in the next school year.

"It's one thing to have quality institutions, but they've also got to be affordable," said Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and lead sponsor of the legislation, whose backers also include Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver dismissed the bill as an election-year attempt "to one-up the governor," who last month proposed the largest increase in university funding in state history and whose budget, she said, has the support of university and student leaders.

"To move money around is a slap in the face to the governor's budgeting efforts and is an election-year gimmick," DeLeaver said.

University tuition is certain to be an issue in this year's elections, with Miller already decrying past increases as "a hidden tax that's imposed for all the wrong reasons."

One of Ehrlich's Democratic rivals for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, proposed a tuition freeze the day before Ehrlich released his higher education budget. Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another Democratic rival, said that a freeze is "a short-term answer" but that additional steps must be taken to make college affordable. He pointed to a scholarship program he has proposed.

As part of a broader effort to address inherited fiscal woes, Ehrlich cut spending on the university system during his first two years in office, leading to program reductions and driving tuition up to some of the highest levels in the country for state schools. In January, he proposed boosting spending next year by $117 million, or 14.5 percent.

A few days after Ehrlich presented his budget plans, the regents set next year's tuition at the system's 11 degree-granting institutions. Tuition for in-state undergraduates at College Park, the flagship campus, is set at $6,861 next year, according to legislative analysts.

The Maryland Constitution generally prevents lawmakers from funding new initiatives without a dedicated funding source. But Democrats have increasingly circumvented that provision by writing language into the budget that "fences off" money, allowing the governor to spend dollars only for a specified purpose.

Hogan's bill would prohibit university officials from raising tuition and would restrict $18.9 million in the budget to offset the planned increases. Another $823,257 could be used only to reduce tuition at Morgan State University, which is governed separately.

DeLeaver said Democrats are trying to "usurp the governor's budget authority" -- a notion Hogan strongly disputed.

"I . . . kind of get sick and tired of that, that we should just accept the governor's budget as submitted," Hogan said. "If he doesn't want to keep tuition down, that's his choice."

Hogan said budget-writers are scouring Ehrlich's proposed budget for savings that could be redirected to tuition relief.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said that delegates are also talking about a tuition freeze but that the idea will have to be weighed against other priorities.

"We're going to take a look at it in the context of the overall budget," Busch said. "Everyone wants to make college tuition accessible and affordable."

Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has filed a bill that also would effectively freeze tuition. Her approach would rely on an appropriation from the governor.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company