California tuition bills: Bipartisan 'yes' to college tuition support not unconditional

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This week, state lawmakers are expected to vote on bills to cut the cost of higher education in California.

With more tuition hikes likely, there’s been bipartisan support for measures that could help students and their families pay college bills, but that support is conditional.

Republicans have voted for some of the Democrats’ policies but they’re taking issue with companion bills that pay for them.

Take Assembly Speaker John Perez’s bill to cut college tuition by two-thirds for middle class families that don’t qualify for financial aid. The L.A. Democrat says they need help with tuition hikes spurred by a decade of cuts to higher education.

“Student fees at the CSU System have risen 191 percent, at the UC system 145 percent, at community colleges, 300 percent.” Perez told the Assembly moments before the vote on his bill. “This means that for thousands of California families, higher education entails increasingly difficult trade offs.”

Perez’ bill AB 1501 could save Cal State students $4,000 a year and save UC students $8,000 a year. Four Assembly Republicans voted for it. But in a letter to the speaker, they said they will oppose the speaker’s bill, AB 1500, which is expected to come up for a vote this week. The bill funds the tuition cuts by scrapping a tax break for multi-state corporations called the "single sales factor." Republicans say Perez’s plan is a tax hike that will drive employers from the state and rob students of jobs.

These “yes, but” votes help the minority party challenge Gov. Jerry Brown’s message that the only way to avoid deeper cuts to education is to raise taxes. Irvine Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner calls that cynical.

“[Brown] knows that that’s where the most pressure is on the electorate," says Wagner. “And so he’s threatening draconian cuts that everybody in the building knows don’t have to happen merely for political strategic advantage.”

The “yes, but” dynamic has played out in the Senate, too. Republicans backed L.A. Democrat Kevin De Leon’s SB 1356, a plan to give Californians a tax credit if they donate to a fund for higher education. But they voted against De Leon’s SB 1466, which would give Cal Grants to families that earn less than $150,000 a year. Republicans like the tax credit — but not the hundreds of millions of dollars a year California would have to spend to expand Cal Grants.

One bill that appears to have won over both sides promises to cut the cost of college textbooks. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg says students shouldn’t have to pay $1,000 a year for those books.

“The fact of the matter is you have a monopoly now. You have a handful of publishers who publish the textbooks — and the students really have no choice," says Steinberg.

The Senate passed Steinberg’s bill SB 1052 to require publishers to post the 50 most common undergraduate textbooks online so they can read them for free. If they want to print them, they’d pay a $20 fee. Republicans voted for that bill because it also gives incentives to companies to develop more interactive products for the web.

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