UW students have plan for helping higher ed

By Katherine Long

Seattle Times higher education reporter
For the last couple of years, lawmakers have sympathized with college students who want them to spare higher education when cutting the state budget. But the choice often boils down to this: Cut social services or cut education funding.

Now, students at the University of Washington have come up with a slate of proposals they say would keep lawmakers from having to choose — by raising money for higher education without raising state taxes.

“We’re students; we do our homework,” said Andrew Lewis, head of government relations for the Associated Students of UW (ASUW).

The three-pronged proposal includes: allowing colleges and universities to invest operating funds in higher-yielding investments; partly closing a tax break that gives business-and-occupation and sales tax credits to high-tech firms for research-and-development spending; and giving community and technical college districts the ability to raise money through ballot levies.

The students, who rolled out their ideas Wednesday during a news conference at the University Book Store, said they and their peers are growing increasingly worried about how the cuts are affecting the quality of their education and the cost of getting a degree.

Randy Hodgins, vice president of external relations for the UW, said he was glad to see students offering creative ideas for new funding sources.

“The more ideas, the better,” Hodgins said. “They have an important voice in this, and it needs to be heard.”

Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed cutting $166 million from higher education as part of a $1.5 billion package of cuts needed to plug the state’s latest revenue shortfall. The Legislature is to convene a special session Nov. 28 to begin that process.

Lewis said changing the terms of the two tax exemptions alone could raise $80 million a year. He said students plan to mount an aggressive lobbying campaign in Olympia for both the special session and the regular session.

One of their ideas, to change the way operating funds are invested, also is being pushed in Olympia by the UW administration, Hodgins said. Currently, that money must be invested conservatively.

Changing the rules to allow schools to take advantage of higher-yielding investments could eventually raise an extra $10 million to $20 million yearly, Hodgins said. It would require an amendment to the state constitution.

Students also want to change the tax credits available to high-tech businesses so that companies with more than 250 employees could no longer take advantage of the break. Lewis said he didn’t know which companies might fall under that category.

According to the state Department of Revenue, one such company is Microsoft, which reported to the state that it is due $104 million in sales-tax breaks under this program.

Hodgins said closing tax loopholes has been floated in Olympia for several years. The university isn’t taking a position on that measure, although he noted the UW itself actually qualifies for the break.

And students say giving community and technical college districts the ability to raise money by putting levies on the ballot would indirectly benefit four-year schools because more students could complete their first two years in a less-expensive community college, then transfer to earn a four-year degree.

UW student Alejandro Peña said the message to lawmakers is this: “You don’t really need to cut. You can say yes to new and creative revenue solutions.”