As lawmakers return, Democrats push alternatives to the University of California tuition hikes



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SACRAMENTO, California — Democratic legislative leaders took aim at tuition hikes approved by the University of California as they returned to the state Capitol to kick off a new session on Monday.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins called for implementing so-called zero-based budgeting for the state, starting with the UC's system. That process requires agencies to justify each line item instead of working automatically from their previous year's spending plan.

"These hearings will give UC an opportunity to show efficiencies they have made and can make and also show each dollar that could be spent holding tuition at its current level," the San Diego Democrat said to lawmakers' applause during a swearing-in ceremony in Sacramento.

Last month the University of California Board of Regents approved increases of as much as 5 percent in each of the next five years unless the state Legislature and governor approve more money for the 10-campus system. The tuition hikes would increase student costs 28 percent by fall 2019.

The hikes were approved over the objections of Gov. Jerry Brown and many lawmakers from both parties.

In response, Atkins touted an alternative proposal she released last month that includes rejecting the regent's fee increases, adding $50 million to the UC system's budget from the state's general fund, and increasing Cal Grant financial aid.

She said that while higher education needs more funding, tuition increases are not the way to do it.

Assembly Republican Leader Kristen Olsen of Modesto called Atkins' zero-based budgeting proposal refreshing and said she's optimistic about setting ideological differences aside to find a solution for higher education. Olsen said she carried a similar zero-based budgeting bill that previously failed to receive a legislative hearing.

Under Atkins' proposal, additional state agencies should be required to undergo a zero-based budget review in future years until the state's entire budget has been reviewed. She said she would work with Brown's Finance Department and state Senate to implement her budget plan.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, also opposed tuition hikes. De Leon said he plans to release a broad higher education plan Tuesday with a focus on improving accessibility, affordability and on-time graduation rates.

"We must fix our education system so that every child regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, can attend a great school in their own neighborhood and can attend a great college or university in their own state because it costs more to incarcerate a prisoner than to educate a child in California," de Leon said.

The governor stopped in both chambers to welcome lawmakers and said he looked forward to reviewing their legislation.

The Senate on Monday welcomed 10 new members to the 40-member chamber and the 80-member Assembly welcomed 27 news members. The GOP succeeded in blocking Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature this election cycle.

Lawmakers also began receiving a 2 percent raise Monday that brings the pay of rank-and-file members to $97,197. Legislators are eligible for a $163 daily cost-of-living allowance but do not get pensions.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff urged lawmakers to focus on the economy.

"I believe we must continue that collaboration next year on the biggest issues that face us: how to boost our economy, make it easier for the nearly 1.5 million unemployed in this state to get a good job, and reform our education system so that every student has the opportunity to learn from good teachers in good schools," Huff said.

Democratic leaders agreed that it's important to maintain the state's long-term fiscal stability and avoid multibillion deficits. A nonpartisan budget analyst recently projected the state will have a $4.2 billion reserve for the fiscal year that will start next July. That includes a $2 billion deposit into the state's rainy-day fund.

De Leon called on senators to collaborate in the new legislative session to improve the lives of all children "regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, regardless of the color of their skin or language they speak or where their parents come from, regardless of their legal status."

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