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The Riggs Report: Brown’s UC throw down

Political brawl brewing over tuition tiff

It’s a fascinating confrontation taking shape between Governor Jerry Brown and University of California President Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona. And what’s at stake in this pending showdown is what some believe is a shakedown involving University of California students, their families, and the tuition they are required to pay.

Napolitano is playing budget hardball with Brown, who, with his recent landslide reelection and strong polling numbers, is enjoying a role as the dominant player in Capitol politics.

Napolitano is testing that, having engineered a vote by the Board of Regents in November to hike tuition by up to 5 percent a year over the next five years.

Over that time span, tuition could climb by more than $3,000 a year. But that tuition hike could disappear, UC leaders say, if the governor and Legislature agree to substantially increase the system’s funding.

In response, Brown engaged in some tough-and politically popular-talk this week during his inaugural speech at the Capitol, telling lawmakers, “I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.” Brown said, in essence, that the University needs to run itself more efficiently and reduce costs by offering more online academics and increasing the number of students who graduate on time, instead of sticking its hand deeper into the pockets of students and their families.

Brown has the opportunity to follow up on that tough talk this week. He holds the ultimate trump card with the state budget, with his proposal scheduled for release on Friday.

Initially I thought Brown might seek some middle ground, but the sense I get now is that he’s prepared to engage in a good old-fashioned brawl, using his budget powers to leverage the University.

I expect he’ll propose a modest increase in UC funding, nowhere close to the amount being sought, when he releases his spending blueprint. And he’ll repeat his demands for the University to streamline operations and adopt cost-cutting measures.

If the University moves ahead with the tuition hike, the governor’s ultimate weapon would be to cut UC’s budget by an amount that corresponds to the dollars raised. In the end, this dispute will have to be brokered by the Legislature.
President Napolitano is facing a host of critical questions from lawmakers, not just the governor, about the 5 percent tuition hike.

What will the final deal look like? Once all the dust has settled, UC will have to settle for a smaller amount of funding.

The unknown is whether University of California students will still be on the hook for yet another tuition hike, although considerably smaller than the 5 percent now on the table. That depends on how hard a line the governor, with his line item veto authority, is willing to take.