Senate plans to freeze UMass tuition in budget draws rebuke
BOSTON (AP) — University of Massachusetts officials lashed out Tuesday at a proposal by a Senate panel to temporarily freeze tuition and fees charged by the five-campus system, saying it could result in cuts devastating to students, faculty and staff.
The plan was included in a $42.7 billion annual state budget unveiled by the Senate Ways and Means Committee for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The committee called for a 7%, or $39 million, increase in state funding for UMass, tied to language prohibiting the university from increasing costs paid by students.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion in this building about the stifling debt that students are graduating with and the high cost of public education,” said the panel’s chairman, Westport Democrat Michael Rodrigues.
UMass would receive $558 million from the state under the Senate budget plan. University officials had previously said they would need at least $10 million more than that to guarantee a tuition freeze.
The House passed a budget last month that also included $558 million for the system, but without the restrictions on tuition and fees.
In a hastily drafted letter sent Tuesday to Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka, UMass President Martin Meehan and the chancellors of the five campuses wrote that a statutory freeze without sufficient funding to cover the university’s fixed costs would be “unprecedented.”
“We are extremely concerned that the Senate budget restricts the university’s fiduciaries from setting tuition and fees consistent with its long-term budget planning and development practices,” the letter stated. “This decision came with no warning or apparent effort to understand its impact on university finances.”
The letter warned of $22 million in potential budget cuts, including more than $8 million at the university’s flagship campus in Amherst, and more than $7 million at the Boston campus.
In an earlier briefing with reporters, Rodrigues said that, with the additional state funding and a recent change to how tuition is allocated to campuses, the university “should be able to find a way,” to hold the line on costs.
Overall, the committee’s budget would increase state spending by about 3%, mirroring spending levels recommended by the House and in an earlier blueprint submitted by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
Following the lead of the House, the Democratic-controlled committee called for no major tax hikes in their budget. But they did restore a pair of new, targeted taxes originally proposed by Baker: One is a 15% excise tax that pharmaceutical manufacturers would pay on sales of prescription opioid drugs in Massachusetts; the other is a 75% excise tax that would be applied to the wholesale price of e-cigarettes and vaping products.
Neither tax was included in the House budget.
The Senate proposed a $268 million increase in so-called Chapter 70 funds that are distributed to public school districts around the state, a level that would represent “record, unprecedented investment” in public schools, according to Spilka.
Lawmakers are currently working on a revamp of the formula used for divvying up state education funds after a special commission highlighted shortcomings in how school districts with large numbers of low-income, immigrant and special education students are treated under the current formula, which dates to 1993.
The earlier House budget called for a $218 million hike in Chapter 70 funds, along with a $16.5 million reserve fund for low-income students.
House and Senate leaders have not ruled out discussions about possible tax increases at a later point in the two-year legislative session. Some Democratic lawmakers and activists insist that more revenue is needed for education, transportation and other pressing state needs.
But a surge in tax collections in April has put the state nearly $1 billion ahead of revenue forecasts for the current year, a development that may ease pressure on the Legislature to act soon.
“We think there are adequate revenues in the state coffers, without raising new revenues, to fully invest in our priorities,” Rodrigues said.
The committee backed a proposal similar to ones offered by the House and Baker that would authorize the state’s Medicaid program to directly negotiate prices of some of the most expensive prescription drugs with pharmaceutical companies. Absent an agreement, officials could hold hearings and order lower prices for certain drugs.
Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry have been sharply critical of the plan but have expressed a preference for language adopted in the House budget.
“By retreating to the same framework as Governor Baker’s initial proposal, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means is supporting a radical, unproven policy with unrealistic cost saving estimates despite the significant risks it poses to sick patients who are waiting for a disease changing therapy that works for them,” said Robert Coughlin, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, in a statement Tuesday.
The price-setting mechanism would apply to only a handful of the costliest drugs, and the plan includes concessions to the industry, including an appeals process, Rodrigues said.