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Lawmaker wants tuition-free college in California by taxing millionaires

University of California students block Board of Regents

Hoping to prevent a vote on a proposed tuition hike, University of California students attempted to block the Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2014.
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Hoping to prevent a vote on a proposed tuition hike, University of California students attempted to block the Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2014.

A California lawmaker wants to tax millionaires to provide a free education for residents at the state’s public colleges and universities – the second proposal put forth in as many weeks to address the soaring cost of a higher education.

Assembly Bill 1356, by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, would add a 1 percent tax on annual California household incomes of $1 million or more, to be placed in a financial aid fund. The tax would generate an estimated $2.2 billion annually, according to the Stockton Democrat, which could be combined with existing aid programs to cover the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at the University of California, California State University and California community colleges.

Eggman said her bill is driven by the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, a framework adopted in 1960 that established distinct roles for each of its three public systems within a broader mission of keeping college accessible and affordable in California.

“We have lost that dream,” Eggman said. But while the state struggles to rein in runaway housing prices, among other issues squeezing out the middle class, this is “the one thing we can control.”

A year of full-time enrollment and campus fees for Californians currently averages about $13,500 at UC, $6,850 at CSU and $1,400 at a community college, though many students receive financial aid to pay for part or all of it. Those prices are more than double what they were a decade ago and, after a half-decade freeze, UC and CSU are planning tuition hikes again next year as their costs rise faster than state funding increases.

New taxes are a tough sell in the Legislature, so Eggman has made AB 1356 contingent on a ballot measure: If passed by two-thirds of both legislative houses, it would go before voters, potentially in 2018, for final approval. A recent poll found a majority of Californians believe college affordability is a major problem, and it was a motivating factor for many supporters of Democrat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election.

“We see a real engaged citizenry after the last election, and I think this is something they would really be behind,” Eggman said.

Last week, Assembly Democrats put forth another “debt-free” college plan to help cover living expenses for nearly 400,000 UC and CSU students whose families make less than $150,000 per year. The $1.6-billion scholarship fund, which they proposed phasing into the state budget over five years, received a skeptical response from the Brown administration for not having a mechanism to pay for it.

AB 1356 would cover tuition and fees for all resident students, regardless of family income, because, Eggman said, “We’re not looking to stratify anybody.”

Republican lawmakers said they agree with their Democratic colleagues that student debt is excessive, but believe providing more aid is the wrong approach. Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside, who sits on the budget subcommittee on higher education, said the state would do better to reduce the inefficiencies that prevent students from finishing in a timely manner than than throw more money at universities’ problems.

“When people are given something for free, how are you going to ensure they graduate in four years?” he said.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, in a statement said the proposed tax increase “would hurt the very students it is supposed to help” by “further driving away businesses, jobs, and capital” and diminishing “the economic opportunities that are available to students once they graduate.”

University of California President Janet Napolitano told The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board that UC's six-year tuition freeze is unsustainable.

University of California students rally to protest the growing price tag for an education on lobby day at the Capitol on Monday, April 18, 2016 in Sacramento.

University of California students protested a proposed tuition hike outside the Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2014. A state audit last week blasted UC for, among other things, admitting nonresident students to the detriment

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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