Lawmakers hearstudents’ budget plea

by Tom Lopez

University graduate and professional students pleaded their cases Wednesday at the state Capitol in an effort to help lawmakers see budget issues from a student perspective.
Students from the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly addressed the House Higher Education Finance Committee and met with individual legislators as a part of the groups’ Legislative Lobby Day, the second in a series of five days in which student organizations try to make an impact on the Legislature. Lobby Days are organized by the Student Legislative Coalition.
“We wanted to send a clear message that the level of funding that the Legislature authorizes will dramatically affect the affordability and accessibility that the University offers its student customers,” said assembly President Bruce Bromberek.
In their address to the Higher Education Committee, members of the organizations stressed personal experiences and relied on anecdotal evidence rather than simply reciting facts and figures. The result, they hope, is that their testimony will stand out and carry more weight than graphs and statistics.
“We want the Legislature to be able to put a face and a name to the numbers they are crunching,” Bromberek said.
Sean OhmsWinnie, the assembly’s legislative liaison and treasurer of the coalition, was one of three graduate and professional students to make a presentation to the committee. In his testimony, he discussed the University’s upcoming budget request. Urging the Legislature to “establish a real working relationship with the University to keep tuition down to a fair increase,” OhmsWinnie asked the committee to fully fund the University’s biennial budget request of $580 million. A fair increase, he said, was one that arose only with the level of inflation.
OhmsWinnie pointed out that in recent years, tuition has been rising faster than inflation and attributed the rise to a lack of legislative support for the University. He cited as evidence an 11 percent tuition increase last year.
“Why the huge increase? Because the University sets tuition increases according to what it considers the market will bear,” OhmsWinnie said. “It is forced to make its ends meet and reconcile historically declining levels of state support by charging those who can afford it. Let me tell you, I cannot afford it.”
“There is a misconception that post-undergraduate students will have this tremendous income, so they say: ‘We’ll raise their tuition, and they can pay it later on,'” Albert Nakano, a member of the Council of Graduate Students, said.
Kristine Neafus, a third-year student in the pharmacy school, also testified; she spoke about her own debts. By the time she and her husband, a dental student, finish their education next year, they will have amassed $200,000 in debt.
Nakano said such personal testimony is effective. “I think by tying in personal experience and how the decisions that affect the University, especially tuition, affect us, gives them a little more perspective,” he said.
Despite declining legislative support, OhmsWinnie said he is optimistic about the outcome of this year’s budget requests, adding that this year the Legislature has been very receptive to student concerns. Although he said he doesn’t believe the University will receive the $580 million that it is asking for, he doesn’t think the University will face the roughly $100 million reduction Governor Arne Carlson has recommended.
Graduate and professional students’ lobbying efforts will continue after the lobbying day, OhmsWinnie said. He is planning to send e-mail messages to GAPSA members that contain the Legislature’s homepage. There they can find the e-mail addresses and phone numbers where their concerns with their representatives can be sent.
“Students should understand that they need to have a voice,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical.”