Limited tuition raises sought

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates are backing a proposal to guarantee annual increases in state funding for Maryland's public colleges while limiting tuition increases to 5 percent a year. The extra state aid would be paid for mainly through an increase in corporate taxes.

The proposal is at the center of a report approved yesterday by a special committee convened last fall by House Speaker Michael E. Busch to find ways to improve access to higher education at a time of skyrocketing tuition.

Panel Chairwoman Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the proposal would be incorporated this week into a bill sponsored by House leaders.

Busch's backing could give more momentum to the notion of a promised level of state funding for colleges paired with a tuition limit, a combination also proposed in a bill awaiting a hearing in the Senate. But the proposal will likely face an uphill climb because of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s stiff opposition to any new taxes.

The House panel's report calls for a minimum 5 percent annual increase in state funding for the 2006 to 2008 school years for the 11-campus University System of Maryland and for Morgan State University, a public college outside the system. Funding would increase 3.4 percent for next school year, rather than the flat funding proposed by Ehrlich.

Taken together, those increases would provide $147 million more in state funding for the system by 2008, bringing it to slightly above the level it was at before last year's 14 percent budget cut.

Such a boost in support, committee members said yesterday, would be linked to a provision prohibiting university officials from raising tuition more than 5 percent a year. The state's colleges increased tuition by about 20 percent, on average, for this school year -- more than $1,000 for many students.

The 5 percent limit would apply to next school year, for which system officials have already given preliminary approval for increases averaging about 10 percent.

Annual tuition increases of 5 percent could still pose a problem for some students, lawmakers said, but would be preferable to the double-digit increases of the past year. "Sometimes you need a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding until you can get a real transfusion," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's Democrat.

About two-thirds of the extra state funding under the House panel's proposal would be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate by about 13 percent, while the rest would be covered through expected increases in other revenue. Ehrlich rejected a 10 percent increase in the corporate tax rate last year.

Republicans on the committee -- who voted against most of its recommendations -- objected strenuously to guaranteeing 5 percent annual increases in state funding. It's irresponsible, they said, to create a new obligation when the state's deficit could approach $1 billion next year.

"It's more of the same, more unfunded mandates," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican. "This is very ill-advised for the citizens of this state."

Republicans also lamented that the report didn't include stronger language requiring accountability and spending restraints by the university system. After holding three hearings addressing a broad range of issues at campuses around the state, they said, it was wrong to focus only on increased funding.

"We've jumped the gun and haven't built the case for why we need this" guaranteed funding, said Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll County Republican.

The report did include recommendations by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that the system make internal audits open to the public, and that it demonstrate to lawmakers that it has sought alternatives before making any layoffs.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery Democrat, said the panel was serious about holding universities accountable. "We have to have more efficiency from the university system," he said.