Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna laid out a plan Friday that he says would gradually increase funding for public colleges universities as the economy improves.

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Describing higher education in Washington as in “a sorry state” because of a steady erosion in public dollars, gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna laid out a plan he says would gradually increase funding for public colleges and universities as the economy recovers.

The Republican state attorney general, who is making education funding a focus of his campaign, said the state’s system is “underfunded and undersized,” and is not producing enough degrees, especially in high-demand areas such as science and technology.

Speaking at the University of Washington, where he was student-body president in 1984, McKenna said he would cap increases in noneducation-program funding at no more than 6 percent per biennium — a number he said would cover inflation and population growth.

As the economy recovered, a substantial share of the excess state revenue would go to education, a process he said would slowly restore those dollars to more robust levels over the course of 12 years.

“The opposite process has led us to where we are today,” said McKenna, who claimed that education funding has historically fared better in this state under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

Higher education has been cut more than almost any other category in the state budget since 2009, and the state’s two- and four-year schools have sharply increased tuition to make up the difference. Tuition at the UW has nearly doubled in five years. And while many legislators — Democrats and Republicans alike — have decried the cuts, they’ve voted in favor of them anyway.

But a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party questioned McKenna’s premise that rising state revenues can fund higher education.

“Throughout his run for governor, Rob McKenna has proposed billions in new education spending without telling voters how he would for pay it,” said communications director Reesa Kossoff. “We can’t afford a leader who claims to be for fiscal austerity but makes campaign promises that don’t add up to reality.”

Kossoff noted that the state’s former chief economist, Arun Raha, has said that the outlook for the rest of this year and 2013 is uncertain, and if the economy remains stagnant, revenues will not increase.

McKenna called for a 50-50 deal between the state and university students, with the state paying half the cost of a four-year degree at public schools. Currently, students at the UW pay about 70 percent of the cost. For community colleges, he called on the state to pay 75 percent of the cost.

He also said colleges and universities should enroll more in-state students, emphasize degree programs that align with future job needs, expand branch campuses, and make more applied baccalaureate degrees available at community colleges.

He said he’d give universities more flexibility in how they spend their money. In addition to relying on revenue growth for new education dollars, he said he’d cut overall state costs by reining in health-care spending and tracking down cases of social-service fraud.

The state’s higher-education system is undersized, McKenna said, adding that he frequently hears from constituents who are frustrated that their children can’t get into the UW and, increasingly, Western Washington University.

And although Washington State University accepted a record number of freshmen last year — its admission rate was 83 percent — McKenna said he’s concerned that WSU took in too many students for its level of funding, and that those students will have trouble getting the classes they need to graduate on time.

McKenna’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, plans to roll out his higher-education proposal in March. He has talked of boosting science, technology, engineering and math degrees. He has also talked about expanding the community-college system.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong