Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed a $43 million increase in state funding for the university system yesterday, a larger-than-expected boost that some say would reduce the need for a contentious tuition-cap bill set for General Assembly debate next week.
Ehrlich said the budget he releases this month will contain $800 million in operating funds for the 11-campus system, up 5.7 percent from this year's $758 million. The state share of the system budget had been cut 12 percent since the governor took office amid burgeoning projected deficits.
"I pledge to keep our universities and colleges accessible to Maryland's working class families," the governor said in a statement.
University officials say that if the funding is approved by the General Assembly, they will be able to hold tuition increases for the fall semester to 5.9 percent or less after two years of double-digit increases totaling more than 30 percent.
The governor announced the spending proposal five days before legislators are to consider overriding his veto of a bill that would limit tuition increases to 5 percent a year for three years while requiring higher spending for universities and imposing a 10 percent corporate income tax increase.
Ehrlich and his staff have been lobbying to sway swing votes on the veto override. The administration won two critical allies yesterday when system Chancellor William E. Kirwan and Clifford M. Kendall, head of the university system's regents, said an override is unnecessary.
"We recognize that we are dependent on the good will and collaboration of the governor and legislators," Kirwan said. "Our best chance for that type of collaboration is if the General Assembly will accept the governor's budget."
Kendall said, "I respectfully suggest that it is best for our students and Maryland higher education to set aside discussions of overriding the veto of HB 1188."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the comments by Kendall and Kirwan must be discounted because of the pressure that the education leaders are facing from the governor.
"I think it is a situation where he's got the hostages, and he's got a gun to their heads, and they are saying whatever he wants them to say," Frosh said. "This is a situation where they are clearly under duress, and you cannot give a lot of weight to their statements."
Frosh said the governor's announcement "muddies the waters" for a veto override but that he still supports the effort.
Ehrlich is making a one-year commitment of money, Frosh said, while the bill would provide continuing funding. And, because the governor is not using a funding source such as the corporate tax, he is taking money from other programs for higher education, Frosh said.
State Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula declined to say which programs, if any, might be cut to provide money for the university system. But he said state revenue growth has been healthy in recent months.
"The governor will submit his budget on the 19th of January, and that will indicate what he plans to do," DiPaula said.
The timing of the announcement was not designed to influence legislators pondering an override, he said.
"This is one issue [the governor] thought was important and needed to be shared with the public," DiPaula said.
Other elements of the governor's spending plan have been kept secret after DiPaula asked all state agencies to submit budget requests 12 percent lower than this year's. Cuts of that magnitude are not expected in most departments.
By giving a preview of his higher education plan now, Ehrlich appears to be easing the pressure to override his veto of the tuition-cap bill.
Sens. James E. DeGrange Sr. and Philip C. Jimeno, both Anne Arundel Democrats who voted for the bill, said yesterday that they would be inclined to sustain Ehrlich's veto if he puts more money into higher education. Losing their votes could be enough to sink the chances of an override.
"It's disgraceful what they did in their cuts to higher education," Jimeno said. "But if he puts more in the budget, then we've been successful."
Tuition throughout the system's 11 campuses averages about $5,000. At the state's flagship campus in College Park, tuition and fees are nearly $7,400, making it one of the most expensive public universities in the country.
Regent James C. Rosapepe, who has been lobbying legislators to override Ehrlich's veto, said he would continue his efforts because he is concerned that Ehrlich will not fund the university in future years.
"Regents have views all over the board," he said. "We can disagree about what's the best action."
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.