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GOP, Democrats push differing tuition proposals

OLYMPIA, Wash. — In a role reversal Democrats in Olympia want to halt tuition increases at the state’s colleges and universities, while Republicans are proposing modest increases of about 2 percent a year.

The News Tribune reports GOP leaders — who control the state Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat — say Washington state’s tuition policy has finally stabilized after years of double-digit tuition hikes under Democrats. The budget Republicans have proposed for the next two years focuses on adding more slots for students, while continuing a plan lawmakers approved in 2015 to tie tuition increases to growth in the state’s median wage.

Democrats say they want to keep tuition costs down for the next two years. The budget plan House Democrats released this week would spend $56.3 million over two years to freeze undergraduate resident tuition, along with $72.7 million to extend state financial aid to 6,000 additional students.

The policy flip has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers, especially Senate Republicans. GOP leaders were the first to propose freezing tuition in 2013, as well as cutting tuition in 2015 — policies that ultimately won the approval of the full Legislature and became law.

“I think they’re two years late for the party,” said Sen. John Braun, the lead Senate budget writer, about Democrats’ embrace of the tuition freeze.

“We’ve now got a clear policy in law that gives parents and students predictability,” said Braun, R-Centralia, referencing the 2015 plan to tie tuition increases to wage growth.

In 2015, lawmakers voted to cut tuition at Washington State University and the University of Washington by 15 percent over two years, while cutting tuition at other four-year universities by 20 percent over the same period. Students at community colleges got a 5 percent tuition cut.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and the lead House budget writer, said he still thinks too many students can’t attend college because of cost, and that’s the primary issue he and his colleagues are working to address this year by freezing tuition.

“They may have moved on, but we’ve stepped up,” Ormsby said of Senate Republicans. “We’re trying to make college more accessible and affordable, so more students have the opportunity to succeed.”