Capitol Alert

California Democrats pitch debt-free college as tuition freeze melts at UC and CSU

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Is it the Bernie Sanders effect?

The U.S. Senator from Vermont went deep in the Democratic primary during last year’s presidential election after igniting support among young voters with proposals like tuition-free and debt-free college. Now those ideas have surfaced at the California Capitol, where lawmakers are talking about the rising cost of higher education in new ways.

Two expansive proposals announced by Assembly Democrats in the past two weeks echo Sanders’ call to help students graduate without accumulating thousands of dollars in debt. A budget plan with backing from the caucus leadership would provide scholarships to low- and middle-income students to pay for living expenses, while another bill would tax millionaires to eliminate tuition at all public colleges and universities in the state.

Both multibillion-dollar programs face steep odds: Gov. Jerry Brown has been reluctant to support new state spending amid a shaky fiscal outlook, and new taxes can be a tough sell to elected officials. But they emerge at an opportune moment for supporters, as the University of California and California State University prepare for their first tuition hikes in six years.

UC already voted in January to raise tuition by 2.5 percent next year to $11,502, along with an additional increase to student fees that have been gradually growing since 2014. President Janet Napolitano argued that without more money, the university was “going to miss that sweet spot on quality.”

Now it’s CSU’s turn. The Board of Trustees is meeting in Long Beach this morning, where it is expected to approve a nearly 5 percent tuition hike for the 2017-18 academic year, to $5,742. The university says that will help make up the difference between additional funding that Brown has offered and what it needs to hire new faculty, add course sections and pay for other programs that are part of its recent initiative to improve graduation rates.

The expected end of the lengthy tuition freeze has upset many students and faculty, who are planning to protest at the trustees meeting, which begins at 8 a.m. They are also sponsoring a bill this session that would prohibit CSU and the California community college system from raising fees until at least 2020.

WORTH REPEATING: “A little dance step to the left, a little dance step to the right. Maybe hocus pocus, it all comes out.” – Brown on how he might secure federal approval for a stalled rail project in the Bay Area

TAKE IT AWAY: One of the biggest intrigues in Washington right now is whether congressional Republicans’ bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act has enough votes to pass. House GOP leaders want to bring the health care legislation up for a vote on Thursday, the 7th anniversary of former President Barack Obama signing the ACA into law, but they are faced with an imperiling number of defections from conservatives upset that the proposal doesn’t go far enough in repealing “Obamacare” and from moderate Republicans worried that too many of their constituents will lose insurance. The margin is so tight right now that President Donald Trump visited Capitol Hill yesterday to shore up support. Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to save the ACA by rallying public opinion of the law, which has been steadily climbing as Republicans get closer to repealing it. Brown, who is visiting D.C. this week and oversaw an expansion of health coverage in California larger than any other state, will join former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders from Congress for a celebration of the ACA’s 7th anniversary this morning at the U.S. Capitol.

VIDEO OF THE DAY: Facing threats of increased deportations, farmers and their immigrant workers are strategizing about how to respond.

FIGHT ON: California Democrats’ resistance to Trump via legislative resolution continues. The latest – highlighting how federal action on health care, immigration and worker protections have disproportionately hurt the black community – will be introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, 9 a.m. in Room 317 of the Capitol. He will be joined by other black lawmakers, including Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, and political leaders, such as California NAACP President Alice Huffman and SEIU Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker, in a show of “strength and unity.”

MUST READ: It’s a distant possibility, but you could be in for a tax rebate from the state this year.

SADDLE UP: Get ready for fresh produce and live animals on the west steps of the Capitol, because the annual California Ag Day has arrived once again. The event organized by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., brings together everyone from almond growers to alpaca breeders to showcase the role of farming in the state’s economy. Legislators are prone to show up and mingle with the exhibitors, leading occasionally to delightfully unexpected moments – like two years ago, when Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, roped a (hay) bull by the horn.

CELEBRATIONS: Happy birthday to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is 44, and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Modesto, who turns 48.

Editor’s note: The AM Alert on Tuesday, March 21, included an error in the spelling of the last name Espinoza.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff