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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

New bills may separate fees from tuition

By Sarah Porter

Student fees may be allowed to rise at higher rates than tuition if two potential bills, one in the Senate and the House, are passed into law. The bills are already halfway to being voted on, which means that they could be passed quickly.

Introduced in January of last year, these bills would allow schools to raise the mandatory Service and Activity (S&A) feed based on student need rather than tuition rates, according to House Bill 1433.

S&A fees are currently coupled with tuition, which means they rise and fall at the same rate as resident undergraduate tuition, according to the Senate bill summary. Decoupling the fees would allow them to rise at faster rates than tuition, but these bills would not allow them to decrease.

At Western, S&A fees primarily pay for the Associated Students, athletics and department related activities such as student publications and theater. They also cover housing and dining costs, as well as campus recreation and club sports. The S&A fees are managed by fee committees which are led mostly by students at Washington colleges and universities.

Western’s current AS legislative liaison, Rosa Rice-Pelepko, said she has been following the House version of the bill and that AS supports decoupling S&A fees from tuition.

“This is something that’s been on the AS agenda for several years now,” Rice-Pelepko said.

However, the extent that fees would be allowed to rise is still up for discussion.

Rice-Pelepko said she has concerns about accounting for minimum wage increases in Western’s AS budget as the law stands. Without being allowed to raise fees by a higher percentage than resident tuition, the budget is at a deficit.

In the 2016-17 academic year, S&A fees were $615 per student, and AS pushed for S&A fees to increase by 3.9 percent. Because fees are coupled with tuition, they rose by 2.2 percent instead.

The AS had to dip into their reserve cash to cover wage increases, Rice-Pelepko said. If Western is not given autonomy to raise fees, she said the current budget would be unsustainable. There will have to be compromises.

Alexander LaVallee, the ASVP for Business and Operations, said if the legislation does not pass, budget compromises could affect resource and outreach programs such as the Womxn’s Identity Resource Center and the Legal Information Center. LaVallee serves on the S&A Fee Committee, and he recently went down to Olympia to lobby for decoupling fees from tuition.

“There’s not enough money,” LaVallee said.

Though members of AS have been pushing for the change, some students are not excited by the idea of increasing fees.

“I don’t like that. We already have to pay a lot of fees,” said Western senior Lily Murock.

The legal journey

Because the bills were introduced together as companion bills in both houses, the legislation could be passed much faster than the usual legislative process would allow.

In order to pass, legislation usually starts in one house and then repeats the process in the other house. With companion bills, the legislation moves through both houses at the same time.

The original version of the Senate bill had no limit on how much S&A fees could increase, but in a recent review committee, Republican Sen. John Braun suggested to cap fee increases at 4 percent. The goal of the change is to prevent overspending, Braun said, but the cap could pose other challenges.

In years when tuition grows at high rates, S&A fees would be restricted by the 4 percent cap instead of being allowed to rise with tuition. Tuition rates in the past have risen as high as 21.5 percent, such as in the 2011-12 academic year.

They have also dropped dramatically in the past. Last academic year, tuition dropped at Western by 15 percent.

“Four percent would be better than not being decoupled, but the obvious preference is for the open door,” LaVallee said.

Unlike a similar bill presented in 2016, this legislation would not allow fees to decrease according to a briefing read by Senate staff member Clint McCarthy at a public hearing on Feb. 7 last year. This means that S&A fees would be forced to continue rising or remain the same every year.

The house bill is like the Senate bill without a cap — it would remove the provision under the current law that couples S&A fees and tuition, and instead fees would be allowed to rise by amounts judged “reasonable and necessary” by S&A fee committees according to the House bill report.

This version poses concerns that Braun attempted to fix. Without a cap on the amount S&A fees can increase, overspending could occur.

Democratic Sen. Guy Palumbo, a sponsor of the Senate bill, said he was not concerned about overspending. Palumbo stated at the same public hearing last February that students make up the majority of the fee committees who would vote on increases, and that they are most capable of making decisions over how much fees should go up.

Tuition cuts were part of the motivation for decoupling S&A fees in the first place, according to testimony by the S&A Fee Committee chair for the University of Washington, Abe McClenny. McClenny served until June 2017, according to his resume.

McClenny said that in years when tuition stays the same or decreases it can cause the S&A Committee at the University of Washington to be unable to fund employee merit or benefit changes, as well as other expenses.

Substitute Senate Bill 5592 is sponsored by four Democrats and three Republicans, and House Bill 1433 is sponsored by eight Democrats and three Republicans; making it a bipartisan initiative.

The Senate bill was passed to a Rules Committee for its second reading on Jan.18, where the committee will decide whether or not to adopt Braun’s suggestion. After the second reading the bill will be voted on.

The House bill was scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, Jan. 22.

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