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Dems Request Special Session to Freeze Tuition

by Andrea Zelinski on June 20, 2012

Democrats are urging the governor to head off college tuition hikes by calling lawmakers back to Nashville this summer, though their plea is not likely to prompt action.

They say lawmakers should freeze college tuition rates as officials at the state’s Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees contemplate increasing college costs.

“You could call it a tuition increase. But what it really is, is a tax increase,” said Jim Kyle, the leading Senate Democrat, at a Capitol Hill press conference. “It is a tax increase on people who are trying to improve their lives and improve Tennessee by getting a better education.”

UT trustees are expected to decide this week whether to go along with proposed tuition hikes of 8 percent at the Knoxville campus, 6 percent at Chattanooga and Martin, and 4 percent at the Health Science Center in Memphis. The Board of Regents, which oversees the rest of the state’s public colleges, is considering increases ranging from 3.4 percent at Austin Peay State University to 7.3 percent at East Tennessee State University.

Democrats say the state has the money to freeze tuition, a task they say would mean handing the higher education boards $78 million. They also want to further reduce the sales tax on groceries by another penny per $100 spent. The Legislature this year approved a reduction of .25 cents per $100.

The request — made in the middle of the campaign season — is a long shot. Republicans refused to budge when those same Democrats wanted to use some $200 million in excess tax revenue to pay for even deeper cuts in the food tax.

Instead, Republicans plugged almost $30 million of excess revenues into the state budget earlier this year, but vowed to stick the rest into state reserves.

“We want to be sure we have a complete picture of what our budget commitments will look like before we interrupt the budget process and start spending funds in an ad hoc way,” said Dave Smith, a Haslam spokesman. “That shouldn’t be done from a quick-fix perspective.”

The governor told the Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this month he wants to turn his attention to finding a better way to fund higher education.

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