Members of a six-member conference are seeking a compromise on the controversial addition of a tuition cap.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Ford, D-Etowah, included a clause that would cap tuition at a 2.5 percent increase for PACT students. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Little, did not include the tuition cap.
Both bills would provide $256 million over the next eight years to save the program.
“We’ve got to come out with a compromise or nothing at all,” Ford said. “I think we can get around it without a cap, but I think the most important thing is that we can’t let 45,000 children down in the state of Alabama.”
Universities have protested the tuition cap, which was written into the House bill by members of the Alabama Education Association, said Rep. Mike Hubbard.
Hubbard said AEA also included an unseverability clause.
“A severability clause says if one part of the bill is found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the bill survives,” Hubbard said. “An unseverability clause says just the opposite—if anything is found to be unconstitutional, it kills the entire bill, and I firmly believe that AEA did that on purpose.”
Hubbard said he thinks AEA knows the tuition cap is unconstitutional, and they used the unseverability clause to make it look like they were trying to save PACT, when in reality, they are not concerned with the needs of higher education.
“By putting caps on our education, it’s basically shifting the vast majority of the burden of the cost onto higher education,” Hubbard said.
“Auburn University has seen its state appropriation cut by almost $100 million per year, which is close to one third of what we receive from the state,” said President Jay Gogue. “Tuition caps in the PACT bill would mean about $480 million in lost revenue for Auburn, and that would put more downward pressure on our ability to control costs for all students while maintaining strong academic programs.”
Gogue said tuition caps in the bill would also create two classes of students, and the University is concerned with maintaining fairness and equality.
Hubbard said making two classes of students is unconstitutional.
“You would have one class of students who are PACT holders paying less tuition than people who don’t have PACT, which I believe is unconstitutional,” Hubbard said. “I don’t believe the Legislature has the authority to tell the universities what they can and can’t do with their tuition.”
Hubbard said if the version of the bill with tuition caps passed, there would immediately be lawsuits filed by non-PACT students, which would further drain the funds needed to save PACT.
Ford said the burden of tuition caps would not fall on non-PACT users.
“I think the universities are trying to scare the students that don’t have a PACT contract saying that they’re going to raise their tuition to offset it, but they can’t do that—that’s discrimination also,” Ford said. “There’s some additional monies we can find, but also you can’t just have a bottomless pit and give Auburn and Alabama and the rest of the universities in the state the ability to just raise tuition at will.”
Ford said he wants to see a bill passed that will save PACT.
“I don’t care about the cap,” Ford said. “I care about solving PACT for 45,000 children in Alabama.”
Hubbard said he is not trying to kill the bill.
“I believe that from a moral, if not a legal standpoint, we as the state of Alabama have an obligation to these contract holders,” Hubbard said. “I’m trying to save the bill, but I tried to take the caps on tuition off because it is clearly not fair.”
Michael Reynolds, executive director of Auburn student financial services, said keeping tuition equal for all in-state students is extremely important to guarantee fairness and quality of education.
“We certainly want PACT to be saved,” Reynolds said. “The argument is, do you save it by burdening others? It’s almost like pushing the problem that happened with PACT onto the backs of the other students.”