Naked City

Dewhurst on De-Reg: Eeek!

In a retroactive attack of conscience, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst let it be known last week that he's disappointed with the governing boards of Texas universities, who apparently took the Lege at its word when it gave them the authority, through tuition deregulation, to charge incoming students pretty much whatever they want beginning this spring. "Some of the tuition increases at our public universities for spring 2004 are higher than what we had been led to believe," wrote Dewhurst in a letter released Nov. 14, "when the Legislature passed tuition deregulation this year. I'm very concerned about keeping our public universities affordable and accessible for the working families and students of Texas. While hopefully we will conclude that Texas universities are very competitive in cost compared to other states' universities, the people of Texas deserve to know how their public universities are performing and to know their tax dollars are improving the academic value of an institution."

The letter was nominally addressed to Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, chairs of the Legislature's oversight committee on higher education, as Dewhurst requested they call a meeting pronto "to review accountability, affordability, and accessibility at our public universities." The committee met this week but on more general matters, while Dewhurst jawboned the various university boards in the daily headlines, and the boards responded with decorous hems, haws, and harrumphs.

On Tuesday, after some muttering, the UT board of regents voted to raise tuition for the spring but, in deference to Dewhurst, to hold off the fall decision for 60 days. The lite guv welcomed the delay and said he will ask the oversight committee to take up the matter next month.

Tuition deregulation, strongly supported by House Speaker Tom Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry, was received reluctantly in the Senate and was in danger of going down in flames entirely -- until the House and Senate engaged in some horse-swapping, with Craddick accepting a tougher government ethics bill in return for Dewhurst accepting deregulation and a new sliding pay scale for students at public universities. Given the go-ahead (and continually diminishing state funding), university regents jumped to design tuition schedules that raise overall rates while providing additional aid to lower-income students. Nobody's happy with the plans, but in the absence of additional state support, it's not at all clear how the universities are supposed to respond to Dewhurst's hesitations.

Nor is it obvious why Dewhurst suddenly found religion on tuition, although the politics on the issue don't quite break on the usual liberal-conservative lines. Education advocates on the left have defended deregulation as the only way to save the state university system without radical tax reform, while some conservatives blast it as a stealth tax on the middle class and a "redistributionist" income scheme. Lots of favored oxen are being gored, amid lots of noisy mooing.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

2003 Legislature, tuition deregulation, David Dewhurst, Florence Shapiro, Geanie Morrison, Tom Craddick

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