UC’s New Motto: Take the Money and Run

When California Gov. Jerry Brown was pushing Proposition 30 in 2012, he sold it with the promise that the income and sales tax increases in his measure would put off sharp tuition increases in the UC and CSU systems. Sacramento increased state funding for the University of California and California State University by 5 percent annually for two years and then 4 percent annually for the next two years. Budget documents heralded a four-year deal that would keep tuition flat.

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Two years into the deal, UC solons say there never was a deal to freeze tuition for four years. At the urging of UC President Janet Napolitano, the UC Board of Regents voted last month to raise tuition substantially — by up to 28 percent over five years — because there never was a meeting at which university officials pledged not to raise fees.

UC took the money. Now the regents are running from the understanding.

If the regents’ case of amnesia strikes you as cheesy, you are not alone. At last month’s meeting of the Board of Regents, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom observed that no one at UC spoke out when politicians and newspapers were reporting there would be no tuition increases. “I don’t know of any formal correspondence we sent to clarify and correct that,” he hectored. CSU just passed a budget that kept tuition flat. And: “I don’t recall any op-eds we put out. I don’t recall anyone standing up here in the last two years saying, ‘We never, sir, agreed to that, Mr. Governor.'”

Regents by virtue of their elected positions, Brown and Newsom both voted against the tuition increase.

Regent Richard Blum, a wealthy financier married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, voted in favor of the tuition increase because he wants to retain star academics. “I have, in the last year, funded a chair for somebody at Berkeley who was dramatically underpaid,” Blum explained, “one of our superstars who was going to leave.”

Blum has been a generous patron to the UC system, but I think he’s wrong to contribute to the academic pay spiral. At the most recent regents meeting, Brown countered that he finds top talent willing to take pay cuts to serve on the California Supreme Court and in his government.

At some point, Brown warned, there will be another recession, and UC’s failure to contain costs won’t be a benefit.

Freshman Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim shrewdly sees an opening. Shortly after being sworn in to office Monday, The Sacramento Bee reported, she introduced a bill to freeze tuition at UC and CSU while the Proposition 30 temporary tax hikes remain in effect. Likewise, Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara has introduced a constitutional amendment to put UC decision-making under the Legislature’s control.

This is where the Democratic Legislature should tell UC to keep tuition steady for the next two years — or watch Sacramento yank the $120 million in funding increases slated for each of the next two years. Instead, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon rewarded Napolitano’s gambit by proposing a $75 million increase for both UC and CSU. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a regent who also voted against the tuition hike, wants to raise UC’s budget by an extra $50 million.

That leaves Brown to play the role of adult in the room by steering the Legislature toward the light or using his line-item veto to send the message that when a California governor makes promises to the voters, he keeps them.

“I think (Brown) has the moral high ground,” former Gov. Gray Davis told me. “The promise of Prop 30 was, ‘If taxes are raised, tuition will not be.'” Davis doesn’t like to watch the system treating “students as (ATMs) and constantly extracting more money.” Some Sacto insiders think Napolitano has the edge in this fight, but Davis noted, “I never think it’s a good idea to bet against Jerry Brown.”

Napolitano argues that her higher tuition will help families by making university costs “as predictable as possible.” But her actions show that the only predictable thing about UC is that whatever voters and Sacramento allot for higher education, UC biggies will demand more.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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