We’re now the laboratory for two social experiments: the $15 minimum wage, and big cuts to college tuition. What’s unique is they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
That it was Republicans who just scored what is believed to be the biggest college tuition cut in state history is a startling development.
It’s so startling that among those blindsided by it are … Republicans.
“There’s no difference anymore between the parties,” fumed one conservative to state Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who had been hailing the tuition cuts on his Facebook page.
“I have had enough of this state and the liberals running it, and you fell right in line with it, Mike, you let us down!” railed another.
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Those are the howls of the tea party wing of the GOP. Once ascendant, it’s reeling a bit around here, says former state party Chairman Chris Vance.
“The moderate suburban Republican is back — finally,” Vance said. “People maybe can’t comprehend that Republicans would do something like support higher ed. But the establishment GOP has been for this going back to the time of Dan Evans. It had been drowned out.”
So how did it rise up now?
Is there just something in the wind out here in The Evergreen State, what with the nation-leading drive for higher wages coming from the left, and now a major college-affordability experiment from the GOP?
The GOP’s crusade to cut tuition was part policy, but part hardball, opportunistic politics.
The back story is that over the years the state’s colleges had been defunded by the Democrats. It was part of a strategy called “high-tuition, high financial aid.” The colleges could increase tuition, while the cash-strapped state would focus on financial aid for needier students instead of giving a rich subsidy to everyone.
It was a way of surviving the lean budget years. To the Democrats’ credit, they kept expanding financial aid even in the throes of the recession.
But the problem is that as the colleges became more self-supporting, they also became an ever-lower budget priority in Olympia. We were on a path to essentially privatizing our public universities, especially the flagship UW.
It was surprisingly the Republicans who launched a drive to reverse this privatization trend. In particular it was Baumgartner and Oak Harbor Sen. Barbara Bailey, joined later by freshman senator John Braun of Centralia.
Baumgartner says he was motivated by how he came out of WSU with no debt because it cost only $3,000 a year back in the 1990s.
They first proposed giving higher ed a dedicated tax source. That went nowhere. Then two years ago they pushed a 5 percent tuition cut.
“We heard a lot of ‘We can’t support that because it’s a Republican idea,’ ” Baumgartner says.
But with rising revenue this year, the Republicans made an overtly political decision.
“The talk in the caucus was: ‘We have to do something completely different from the Democrats,” Baumgartner says. “We have to show there is some benefit to having us in charge of anything around here. So we went bold.”
The result was a headline-grabber: A proposal for an unprecedented 25 percent tuition cut.
Says Vance: “It was partly a way to repudiate the Democrats politically. To say: ‘See? When the Democrats were in charge, they gutted higher ed.’ ”
But to cut tuition without starting a war with the universities, the GOP had to do a very un-GOP thing: pour money into a college system that some conservatives distrust for its liberalness and pricey administrators. The UW, for example, got a 24 percent spending boost, from $500 million in the last two-year period to $620 million. About $45 million of that new money pays for the compromise 15 percent tuition cut. But the rest goes straight to the university.
As a marker of how unusual this is, see what Republicans are doing in Wisconsin. There, Gov. Scott Walker is slashing university budgets, bashing tenure and lecturing professors to just work harder.
Whereas we’re now a living laboratory for two major social experiments: the $15 wage in Seattle and nation-leading tuition cuts statewide.
Also startling is that in the end, at the insistence of Democrats, Microsoft agreed to be taxed to help pay for the tuition cuts.
So our story goes against stereotype in several ways. You have the anti-government party making a major commitment to grow a part of government. And you have a corporation doing the Capitol a favor rather than coming there seeking one.
Strange times. If it’s all just something in the Washington wind, let it blow harder.