As he stumps for re-election, Gov. Jay Inslee is taking credit for a popular legislative act that has slashed tuition for public-college students. That annoys Republicans, who proposed the idea.
As he stumps for re-election, Gov. Jay Inslee is taking credit for a legislative act that has slashed tuition for public-college students.
Tuition costs fell between 5 and 20 percent over two years at public colleges and universities — a move that drew national attention as Washington became the only state to lower tuition across the board.
Inslee has bragged about those savings in campaign ads and speeches, recently calling the cuts “the cherry on top” of his first-term educational accomplishments.
But how much credit should he take for a policy that first came from the opposing party?
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Inslee’s boasts have annoyed Republicans, who say the Democratic governor is mooching acclaim for a politically popular act he had little to do with, and even resisted.
The tuition-rollback idea came from state Senate Republicans, who put the proposal in their 2015-17 state budget plan last year — one-upping Inslee and House Democrats who had offered to freeze tuition.
“It’s a nice populist thing for the governor to use, but the reality is this was never a priority for him,” said state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, prime sponsor of the tuition cuts, who said Inslee’s only role was signing the final bill.
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, another leading tuition-cut advocate, said: “He didn’t screw it up. For Inslee that’s an accomplishment.”
Inslee and Democrats say such snark is unfair and ignores the record.
Like any substantive bill that passes a divided Legislature, the final tuition-cut plan, which passed unanimously, reflected a compromise between Republicans and Democrats.
The GOP’s initial proposal excluded community colleges; Democrats insisted they be included.
Inslee and other Democrats also demanded the GOP pay for any tuition cut with new revenue, instead of relying on widely criticized budget gimmicks.
“I think it’s fair for both parties to take credit for this achievement,” Inslee said in an interview. “When we found a way to pay for these things, we did it on a bipartisan basis.”
Inslee added that he’s praised Republicans for their leading role. In his State of the State speech in January, he said the GOP “had a great idea” for the tuition cut, adding “I gladly give them credit.”
State Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, said the final result marked a key victory for Democrats, who overcame GOP resistance to pay for the tuition cuts by ending some special-interest tax breaks worth more than $300 million over four years.
“That’s really, really great. We should do that again,” said Hansen. “Now that we’ve set this precedent, can we go further with that?”
Meanwhile, thousands of college students and their parents have been reaping the benefits of lower tuition.
Austin Wright-Pettibone, a senior chemical-engineering major at the University of Washington, said the changes had saved him $1,671 in a year.
As a student-government representative, he’d worked to lobby the Legislature for lower tuition. But he and other student leaders figured the best they could hope for was a tuition freeze.
“I was speechless” when the GOP proposed big tuition cuts and made them a policy priority, Wright-Pettibone said.
The move reversed years of precedent, as recession-era budget pressures led successive governors and the Legislature to cut general tax support for public colleges.
In return, lawmakers gave universities more authority to raise tuition. At the UW, tuition and fees spiked by 61 percent in four years.
Lawmakers made more money available for financial aid. But middle-class families felt the squeeze.
That’s where Republicans saw an opportunity on a policy — and political — front, Baumgartner said.
He said he doesn’t begrudge Democratic legislators who embraced the idea and worked to refine it but said it’s galling to hear Inslee take credit while running for re-election.
Inslee’s 2015-17 budget proposal last year didn’t lower tuition even while seeking $1.4 billion in higher taxes, noted Baumgartner. And in 2013, the governor’s budget sought tuition increases of up to 10 percent.
Wright-Pettibone, who was appointed by Inslee in March as the student representative to the UW Board of Regents, said no matter who gets the praise, the tuition cuts have been a big deal.
“The governor was able to sign a package that was a truly bipartisan piece of legislation,” Wright-Pettibone said. “It was an incredible moment of really seeing how we can turn the tide on higher education.”