A proposal to allow the state's public universities to raise tuition without the Legislature's approval is gaining momentum in Olympia. The University of Washington and Washington State University, in particular, have long wanted to set their own undergraduate tuition rates but have been rebuffed by lawmakers who've wanted to retain that power.

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A proposal to allow the state’s public universities to raise tuition without the Legislature’s approval is gaining momentum in Olympia.

The University of Washington and Washington State University, in particular, long have wanted to set their undergraduate tuition rates but have been rebuffed by lawmakers who’ve wanted to retain that power and keep the cost of college in check.

However, the $2.6 billion state budget shortfall — on the heels of last year’s big cuts to higher education — has prompted lawmakers to look again at the idea as a way to let the universities raise more money.

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In her State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire urged lawmakers to grant universities “tuition flexibility.” And a UW-backed measure that would give universities tuition-setting authority, within limits, is gaining the support of some key lawmakers.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who chairs the Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee, said he expects to file a bill this week that would give the state’s six universities the ability to set resident undergraduate tuition rates.

Universities already set rates for out-of-state and graduate students.

The Legislature currently sets the maximum amount of tuition every two years as part of the state budget.

A draft of Kilmer’s bill would limit undergraduate tuition increases to 14 percent in any given year and to a long-term annual average of 10 percent.

The changes would take effect in fall 2011.

The bill also would require universities to keep tuition in line with peer institutions and meet certain standards, such as for graduation rates.

Kilmer said he wants to preserve the quality of higher education in the face of significant and long-term cutbacks in state funding.

According to UW’s calculations, the university lost 26 percent of its state funding last year. In turn, it raised tuition 14 percent — the amount allowed by the Legislature to help offset the budget cuts — so that annual tuition and fees now total $7,700.

The university will raise tuition another 14 percent this fall.

Meanwhile, Gregoire has proposed cutting an additional $90 million from colleges and universities statewide this year.

“This is one of the more important conversations in higher education this year,” Kilmer said. “It’s important that the students in the state of Washington get an affordable education and a quality education.”

Randy Hodgins, the UW’s vice president of external affairs, said that after previous failed attempts, the university helped write Kilmer’s bill to give flexibility to the universities but also address some of the concerns of lawmakers.

He said the limits in the bill would prevent dramatic rate increases like those in the University of California system, where tuition is going up 32 percent this year.

“We hope that what we’ve crafted is some middle ground,” Hodgins said.

Western Washington University said it supports the UW bill.

Kilmer’s bill will be one of several competing tuition bills. Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, already has filed a bill that would give the UW complete control over tuition without any limitations.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who favors higher tuition coupled with higher financial aid, also is expected to drop a bill that hands over qualified authority to the universities.

Washington State University favors the unrestricted approach.

“I guess we are on the Jacobsen side. We prefer the university has complete rate-setting authority,” said Larry Ganders, WSU’s assistant to the president.

“The more you restrict it, the more you take away whatever advantages are associated with it.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, remain unconvinced.

“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “handing over outright authority is not something I think is a particularly good idea. I just think it’s the responsibility of the Legislature.”

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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