Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Assembly Leaders, Raimondo To Forge Tuition Compromise

Mar 27, 2017

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s signature plan for free tuition at Rhode Island public colleges has generated opposition.  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says she may have to make some changes to deal with the new statehouse landscape. 

Last week brought change to Smith Hill – Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport stepped down from her influential position and was replaced by veteran senator Dominick Ruggerio of North Providence. At first blush, this change doesn’t seem cataclysmic for the governor’s tuition plan; both Paiva Weed and Ruggerio are reliable Democrats, close to organized labor and their party’s working-class roots.

While this new leadership may not signal big shifts in the way the General Assembly makes or doesn’t make decisions, it creates a new dynamic for Raimondo. In Paiva Weed, the governor had a reliable ally, even cheerleader. Ruggerio is known as a wily lawmaker adept at crafting compromise, but he likely won’t be as strong a supporter of Raimondo as was Paiva Weed.

The first woman to serve as Senate president was a vocal booster  of our first woman governor’s free college tuition proposal. Paiva Weed was in sharp contrast to House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston, who has said he won’t allow the plan for two years free tuition at state schools to move forward.

Here’s all you need to about the rough sledding for Raimondo’s tuition proposal – a Democratic advocacy group,  financed largely by unions, is running campaign-style television ads aimed at drumming up public support for the governor’s plan. Insert here:

On the merits, it’s difficult to argue with Raimondo. Just about every economic expert laments Rhode Island’s undereducated workforce. Our state has fewer college graduates in the working age population than other states, particularly Massachusetts and Connecticut. Those states compete with us for 21st century jobs.

Other points to consider also bolster Raimondo: Americans with no more than a high school education have now fallen so far behind in salaries that the earnings gap has widened. College grads earn 56 percent more, on average, than those who only finish high school, according to 2015 data from the Economic Policy Institute. That’s up from a 51 percent difference in 1999.

Between 2011 and 2015, Rhode Island adults with high school diplomas were about three times more likely to be unemployed as those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree,  according to data from Rhode Island Kids Count.

And you don’t need to be a policy wonk to understand that high tuition rates are a barrier to low-income students seeking higher education.

Speaker Mattiello has said his top priority this year is phasing out the nettlesome car tax. It’s an unfair levy that hurts low-income Rhode Islanders. Car tax rates also anger motorists because they vary widely among communities. But to fully get rid of the car tax, Mattiello must find more than $200 million in state money to make up for the revenue loss to cities and towns.  Raimondo’s tuition plan would cost $30 million when it fully goes into effect.

It’s time for the governor and Assembly leaders to work out a deal.  Among the criticisms of Raimondo’s plan is that it would allow the wealthy to send their kids for free to the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island. What Raimondo could do to counter this is to adopt an idea from a similar state college tuition plan advanced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: set up a means test. Under Cuomo’s proposal, free tuition would be limited to families earning $125,000 a year or less.

The other salvo at Raimondo’s plan is that it makes it too easy for students to get taxpayer-financed tuition. A student would only have to maintain a 2.0 average to be eligible. In this era of grade inflation, that’s too low. Raising the grade point average higher would make free tuition more palatable. Young people need to learn to value things they have to work hard for; taxpayers would probably agree.

And there is the argument that there should be some notion of `giving back’ to get free college. Military veterans earn college tuition breaks because they have served. Perhaps the governor could include a community service requirement for students getting this a tuition break.

As March turns to April, the clock starts ticking on the Assembly session. Raimondo’s idea is a good one, akin to another Rhode Island politician’s landmark legislation many years ago – the late Sen. Claiborne Pell’s federal Pell Grant program.

It would be sad to see the free tuition plan blocked because of Statehouse infighting and turf politics. As the bumper sticker says, if you don’t like education, try ignorance.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6;45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org