Washington’s Republican lawmakers want to slash tuition at the state’s public universities, but Democrats say it’s better to spend money on helping low-income students go to college.

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A measure that would slash tuition by as much as 25 percent at Washington’s public universities is the only such proposal in the country, and its sponsors herald it as a tax cut for middle-class families.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, says the cut — part of the Senate-approved budget — will set up the state for long-term economic success by making college affordable to more students.

“This resonates immediately with a wide range of folks around our state,” Braun said. “I think we’re leading the country with this idea.”

Not so fast, House Democrats say.

They argue that the Republican approach wouldn’t lower community-college tuition, hurts low-income students in private colleges who receive state aid, and includes a budgetary sleight-of-hand that cuts benefits to faculty and staff.

House Democrats have instead proposed extending a tuition freeze for two more years, and putting millions into financial aid, which would assist as many as 10,000 students who aren’t currently getting state help to pay for college.

In one area, though, the two sides seem to share common ground. Both the Senate and House have passed bills that would tie tuition to average state income, suggesting that some compromise could be in the works over the next few weeks.

The proposal to cut tuition is being watched around the country.

“A 25 percent reduction in tuition rates is almost unheard of,” said Thomas Harnisch, assistant director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

He knows of only one other state considering a tuition cut: Ohio, where a bill calls for a 5 percent reduction.

”It really is kind of a unique idea,” said Dustin Weeden, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. If it were to pass, he said, “That’s going to start a lot of conversations in other states. They’ll be asking: ‘If Washington can do this, why can’t we?’ ”

It’s not clear whether Washington can do it. Budget negotiations between the House and Senate broke down Wednesday. The last scheduled day of the session is April 26.

It’s also unclear how a tuition cut would affect the state’s prepaid college-tuition fund because its payouts are tied to the highest tuition charged at a state school.

“In middle, they’re stuck …”

House Democrats say their approach would take care of those least able to pay.

Under the Senate proposal, “My neighbors in Medina get their tuition reduced, which is nice, but not necessary,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who heads the House appropriations committee.

By putting money toward helping more low-income students go to college, “We’re trying to put money in where you get the most bang for the buck,” he said.

But Braun, the senator who proposed the 25 percent tuition cut, said the state already has one of the most generous financial-aid programs in the country.

“If you think about the economic spectrum, we give pretty good help at the bottom, and at the top they don’t need help,” Braun said. “But in the middle, they’re stuck without a ton of help.”

That’s similar to the argument that students have made in recent years.

In a report last year titled “Meet Us in the Middle,” UW student leaders called on the state to lower tuition to the point where it is possible for a student to work his or her way through college. They also called for more financial aid.

Braun said that when he was a student at the University of Washington in the 1980s, tuition was 7 percent of the state’s average wage, and “If you had a part-time job and worked summers, you could put your way through the UW, or any other school in the state.” Today, he said, UW tuition is about 22 percent of the average state wage.

For an undergraduate, in-state student at the UW, tuition alone is $10,740 a year; students also pay $1,654 a year in mandatory fees. When living expenses are factored in, the yearly cost for a student living on campus is about $27,000.

Under Braun’s bill, tuition would be lowered in two phases, and by 2017 would be $7,560 at the UW and WSU. Students at the state’s other four-year schools would pay $5,400 a year, and community-college students would pay $3,240 — about the same amount they pay today.

The bill indexes tuition to the average state wage, which Braun described as a “stable and predictable” number that’s been calculated by the state Employment Security Department for many years. As the state wage grows, so too will tuition, “allowing for controlled growth in the future,” he said.

Braun’s bill

But Democrats say Braun’s bill would reduce the amount of money that goes to financial aid, including aid to Washington students who attend private colleges and universities.

Braun argues that the number of students receiving aid wouldn’t change — the state would just need less money to pay for aid because college would be cheaper.

Under the House proposal, about 10,000 more students would receive aid — reducing by one-third the number of students who qualify for aid but now don’t get it.

Meanwhile, the House has passed, with some bipartisan support, a bill that sets a long-term goal for tuition at all state schools to be no higher than 10 percent of the median family income — about $8,386 in today’s dollars. That would roll back tuition to 2008 figures, said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, one of the bill’s prime sponsors. Pollet first introduced that idea in a bill two years ago.

Under the proposed House budget, tuition would be frozen for two years. Then, in the 2017-19 biennium, Pollet said, tuition could gradually be lowered — assuming that the House-proposed capital-gains tax passes, and the money starts to flow into state coffers.

Braun acknowledged that the state’s colleges and universities are concerned that the Senate budget doesn’t backfill all the money that would be lost through tuition cuts. “We’re working through the details on this,” he said.

Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Colleges — Seattle Central, North Seattle and South Seattle colleges, plus the Seattle Vocational Institute, the largest community-college district in the state — said the House budget would do more to expand opportunities for community-college students by putting money into the State Need Grant, and it also funds a salary increase for faculty and staff. The Senate budget does not.

The state’s four-year institutions have been reluctant to pick one budget over the other, said Paul Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents, an organization made up of the six presidents of Washington’s four-year public colleges and universities. The council’s biggest hope is for stable, predictable funding, he said.

Maud Daudon, chair of the Washington Student Achievement Council and president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the achievement council gives more priority to increased financial aid.

But in general, she said, the support for higher education in the Legislature is stronger than it has been in years.

“We’re really pleased that higher education is being taken very seriously,” she said.