A new bill introduced in the state Legislature would offer parents who own Guaranteed Education Tuition units an incentive for switching to a different kind of investment.
Why is a $600 million surplus giving some lawmakers a headache?
Because it’s extra money in the state program that allows parents to save for college by prepaying their kids’ tuition bills.
And now one lawmaker wants to distribute it.
If you have money in the program, known as the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) plan, you might want to pay close attention to a bill sponsored by that lawmaker.
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SB 5923, sponsored by Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, would boost the value of each GET unit by $23 — from $117 to $140 — but only if participants move their money into a new type of program, known as a 529 savings plan.
Parents who have bought 400 units of GET — enough to cover the costs of four years of college at an in-state institution — would get an extra $9,200.
Sounds great, right?
Of course, the bill has to pass first.
And there’s a catch. As a prepaid-tuition plan, GET comes with a guarantee — no matter what the stock market does, 100 units of GET will always pay for one year of tuition and fees at Washington’s most expensive public school.
Not so for 529 savings plans — they are more like 401(k)s, at the mercy of the ups and downs of the stock market.
And Washington also has yet to open a 529 savings plan. Its creation was delayed last year after no financial-management companies bid on managing the fund, said Mullet, who also serves on the state investment board. Apparently, the state’s terms — management fees couldn’t exceed one-half of 1 percent — were too low for most financial firms, he said.
Who might make the switch?
Participants with children who want to go to out-of-state schools, for one, Mullet said. Washington public-college tuition is expected to increase very little, if at all, over the next two years; tuition at out-of-state schools is likely to rise faster.
And parents whose kids are going to college in the next two years might also want to forgo the tuition guarantee in exchange for the chance of a boost in the value of their accounts, Mullet said.
Here’s a little history of GET’s ups and downs:
Shortly after the recession, when the stock market fell and the price of tuition zoomed, GET was underfunded. Two years ago, the state cut tuition, playing havoc with the price of GET units and causing the state agency that administers GET to allow recent investors to pull money out without penalty, and closing it to new participants. (It’s expected to reopen by July 1.)
Now, with tuition cuts and a strong stock market, the GET fund has a surplus — the overall value of the fund is $2.2 billion, or $600 million more than it needs to pay those guaranteed tuition dollars, Mullet said.
There are more than 100,000 active GET accounts. (Some students have more than one account.)
Because GET money is owned by its investors — the state acts in a fiduciary, not ownership, capacity, and the assets of the program are not considered state money — the surplus belongs to its investors.
Meanwhile, last year legislators approved the creation of a 529 college savings plan, which proponents say allows investors to take advantage of a strong stock market.
Every state but Wyoming and Washington offers a 529 savings plan. Only nine states offer prepaid-tuition plans like GET.
Mullet says his bill will “kill two birds with one stone” — deal with the GET surplus and help the 529 savings plan get set up. A new request for proposals is out, and Mullet thinks the rollover deal might sweeten the pot because financial firms would see it as a way to get more investors into the savings plan.
His bill has bipartisan appeal — its co-sponsors include three other Democrats and one Republican, Sen. John Braun, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. If it passes, the bill would give GET investors six months to decide if they want to roll into a 529 savings plan once it opens sometime later this year. (The bill would not affect the value of a GET unit that is not rolled over into a savings plan.)
Lawmakers can just leave the surplus be, but Mullet would rather not.
“If we’re not going to share it with the GET holders,” Mullet said of the surplus, “who are we going to share it with?”