ATLANTA -- With the state Legislature talking about another round of statewide spending cuts and officials with the University System of Georgia countering with rumblings of additional tuition hikes, a Southwest Georgia legislator has authored a resolution that would curtail the system's authority to unilaterally make such hikes.
Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, has drawn up a resolution, and gotten co-sponsorship from some of the state's heavy hitters, that would tie tuition rates at university institutions to the inflation rate. The measure is a response to the system's most recent tuition hikes that escalated up to 16 percent at some of Georgia's largest institutions while the inflation rate hovered around 1.64 percent.
"This resolution offers a good system of checks and balances," Rynders said Thursday after reading his resolution in the House well and immediately picking up more than 100 signatures of support. "I don't know how we can have a discussion about the HOPE scholarship without tuition increases being a part of the discussion."
University System officials have hinted that the state lottery-funded HOPE scholarship will not increase to the level of projected tuition hikes if they are indeed imposed.
"If two-thirds of our students lose the HOPE scholarship (because of funding shortages), perhaps the high tuition rate helps explain the low retention rates at some schools," Rynders said. "Maybe our colleges are losing students who can't afford to pay continually rising tuition.
"You could also conclude that the across-the-board tuition increases disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged students like we find in may parts of rural Georgia."
Rynders' proposed resolution, which would amend the state Constitution and thus require a statewide vote, reads: "Shall the Constitution of the state of Georgia be amended to provide that increase in tuition and fees at institutions of the University System of Georgia shall not exceed the rate of inflation unless approved by a joint resolution of the General Assembly?"
Rynders is listed as sponsor of the bill, and co-sponsors include second signer Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee; third signer Terry England, R-Auburn, chairman of House Appropriations; fourth signer Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, chairman of House Transportation, and fifth signer Jay Powell, R-Camilla, chairman of the Public Safety Appropriations Subcommittee.
Darton College President Peter Sireno said officials at the two-year college would not comment on tuition matters or on Rynders' proposal.
"It is totally inappropriate for us to comment as we do not have any authority over tuition; that is the Board of Regents," he said.
Rynders said he has not entered into discussions with Regents officials about his proposal.
"I do expect to get negative feedback from them, though," he said.
Regents spokesman John Millsaps said late Thursday afternoon the Regents could not immediately comment on Rynders' proposal.
"We're very much aware that he's started this process, but until we see the actual amendment we can't respond," Millsaps said. "We don't want to comment until we've had a chance to look at the resolution and analyze it."
Millsaps did say, however, that tuition increases at state institutions have tied directly to funding cuts and diminishing state appropriations for education.
"The University System has a historical compact with the Legislature where they traditionally have paid 75 percent of the cost of instruction for our students and the Regents have supplied the other 25 percent," he said. "Understand now that we are very aware of how tough their situation is with this economy, and we realize that even with recent increases in tax revenues, the dollars are still not there.
"But the state has not been able to do what it has traditionally done. Instead of a 75-25 split, they're now paying around 59 to 60 percent of the costs. That's one of the key challenges the system is facing, that and the fact that enrollment has increased significantly. Since Fiscal Year 2009, we've added 37,000 students. And where the state was providing slightly more than $8,000 per student in the recent past, it is now supplying around $5,200."
Rynders said University System officials were guilty of "posturing" when they threatened last year to cut such programs as 4H from state schools as a cost-saving measure.
"They accused us of posturing, but they came to us on a Tuesday and told us to come up with a plan to cut $300 million from our budget and, by the way, have it to them by Friday," Millsaps said. "It would have been tough but reasonable if we'd been allowed to come up with a plan that's a part of the real world. But they told us we couldn't include any form of funding increase or any formula funding. It was just an artificial exercise.
"We had a short period of time to get this done -- I was 'posturing,' and yet I did not leave my office from Thursday to Sunday of that week -- and so at that point those programs were what we could come up with on short notice. What else were we going to do?"
Millsaps offered as another example of budget casualties the Regents' fixed tuition plan that was put in place in 2006 to guarantee freshmen entering college that their tuition rate would remain the same for the next four years.
"That was designed to help students do a little cost control, but unfortunately we had to withdraw the plan because of the cuts we've endured over the last few years," he said. "If the governor's recommended cuts for the next fiscal year (projected to be as much as $300 million) are approved as recommended, we will have seen our budget reduced by a net of $550 million since fiscal 2009."
Rynders said the University System has been able to pass along a large percentage of its budget cuts to its students, and that's the reason he's pushing the constitutional amendment.
"What makes the University System unique is they have a dedicated revenue stream -- their students," he said. "They can pass their budget cuts on to their students through tuition increases."