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Rep. Rukavina seeks to slow tuition increases

Tuition costs could increase by 10 percent next year, but Rukavina thinks this can be prevented.

With rumors circulating of tuition hikes nearing 10 percent, one state representative is seeking to end the increases before they start.

Legally, the Legislature can’t mandate fiscal policies, such as tuition increases, to the University, but that isn’t stopping Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, from trying.

And now, the DFLer is calling for a tuition freeze.

A Higher Education Policy bill provision says the Board of Regents must not increase tuition or fees beyond the previously planned amount – 7.5 percent.

Rukavina, who is chairman of the House committee where the provision began, said he doesn’t remember the University forecasting the 7.5 percent increase. Furthermore, he said even that is too high.

It’s likely the University will endure a $10 million cut in state appropriations, but Rukavina maintains officials can slow tuition hikes.

“I think the main mission of the University is to educate our public,” Rukavina said. “You can’t do that if you’re pricing yourself out of business, that’s what they’re doing.”

However, increases could go higher. If the University faces Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed $27.3 million cut, officials say tuition could increase by 9.5 percent.

For its part, the University will do what it has to in order to withstand the cuts, University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said, which could mean budget cuts and slowing down investments, with further tuition increases as a last resort.

Holding off on investments could be exactly what Rukavina is looking for, as he said with the coming budget cuts, it’s time for the University to “slow down,” not raise tuition.

“(Academic Health Center Senior Vice President) Dr. (Frank) Cerra’s got these ambitious goals with his bioscience buildings and you kids have to pay for the g- -d- -n football stadium,” Rukavina said. “It’s time to just slow down a little bit; their main mission is to educate.”

Earlier this legislative session, the University received funding for a $292 million biomedical research program, of which the state is set to pay 75 percent. On top of the program, the University also received more than $100 million in funding for other projects.

After a relatively favorable session for the University, more tuition increases could have other, unintended consequences for the school at the Capitol, Rukavina added.

“They’re going to lose a lot of friends at the Capitol if they jack up that tuition,” he said. “They’re pricing themselves out of work if they keep going up 7.5 percent.”

Despite Rukavina’s intent to keep tuition low, Pfutzenreuter stands by the fact that the Legislature can’t decide how the University spends its money.

As for the governor, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Carey said the bill’s stipulation is “meaningless” because of the University’s autonomy, and said Pawlenty remains in favor of the $27.3 million cut.

Still, the tuition provision remains in the bill, likely to be finalized Tuesday, Rukavina said.

And in response to Pfutzenreuter:

“Tell him to sue me,” Rukavina said. “It’s in the bill, tell him to sue me.”

Jake Grovum is a senior staff reporter.

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