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Republican state senators offer bill to cut state university tuition, say funding can be found

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OLYMPIA, Washington — Two Washington state senators have offered a plan to cut tuition in the state's public universities and community colleges — provided the money can be found to pay for it.

"That's the million-dollar question," said bill sponsor Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, when asked where the estimated $226 million to cover the expense of the proposed tuition cuts would come from. Lawmakers are facing a projected budget shortfall of more than $2 billion.

Braun and Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, held a news conference Thursday to discuss their bill to cap tuition costs at the state's public universities and colleges at a percentage of the average wage of the state, currently $52,635.

The students flanking them at the news conference were enthusiastic about the prospect of a tuition cut. The state's research universities, Washington State University and the University of Washington, would each see the main piece of its tuition costs — to which each university adds fees — drop from the current annual rate of over $10,000 to under $7,500. The state's smaller four-year universities would have a lower cap, and community-colleges lower still.

"High tuition isn't just bad for students," said University of Washington student Austin Wright-Pettibone, 21, a pre-engineering major from Seattle. "It's bad policy for our state."

Bailey said students who enter post-college life hamstrung by debt often delay life decisions such as buying a home and starting a family while they get their finances in shape to pay off student loans. Both she and Braun said the state's economy would benefit from having smaller economic encumbrances on young, educated Washingtonians, and both said the state's universities would get more money from state government to offset the decrease in tuition revenues.

"We're not asking the universities to absorb the cost," Braun said.

Neither, however, offered specifics when asked where the state might find $226 million they said it would take to cover the cuts. Although the current budget is still being negotiated, Washington's budgets have been over $30 billion for several years, a context Braun cited as offering hope the money for his bill exists somewhere.

"Is this hard to do?" he said. "Yes. But it's doable."

Along with Braun and Bailey, 15 other members of the mostly-Republican caucus that controls the state Senate are co-sponsoring the bill. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, expressed skepticism when asked how the bill would fare if it clears the Senate.

"There's no magic money," Sullivan said. "If you don't have the revenue to pay for it, I don't see how you make it a reality."

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