Protests Don’t Stop UC Regents’ 32 Percent Fee Hike

Surrounded by campus police dressed in protective riot gear and armed with beanbag guns, hundreds of student protesters at UCLA Thursday chanted “Shame on You, Shame on You” toward the building where the UC Regents had just voted to raise tuition and fees by $2,500 over the next year.

The protests had little impact on the UC Regents’ vote, however, as all but one approved the two-phase, 32 percent fee. (The lone dissenting vote was cast by UC student, Jesse Bernal.) This represents one of the steepest increases in higher education nationwide, but reflects the present turmoil in California economics.

The annual cost of a UC education, not counting room, board, books and campus-based fees, would rise above the $10,000 mark ($10,302) for the first time in its history. Twenty years ago, students paid just $1,624 in tuition at UC.

Fourteen students were arrested at UCLA Wednesday for disrupting the meeting, while another group staged a sit-in that effectively closed Campbell Hall.

Hundreds more demonstrated at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, including striking members of the Berkeley chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees. Some classes were closed Wednesday, as faculty walked out in support of the protest, although the disruptions were minimal, said UC Berkeley media relations person, Dan Mogulof.

University of California, Irvine, economics student Sarah Bana told the UC Regents Wednesday, “You are jeopardizing California’s future.” But the UC Regents said their hands were tied in the matter, and pointed to state budget cuts as the culprit. “When you have no choice, you have no choice,” UC President Mark Yudof said after a Regents’ committee endorsed the fee plan Wednesday. “I’m sorry.”

Yudof reported the fee increases would cover the expected UC budget shortfall of more than half a billion dollars. The UC president wouldn’t rule out raising student fees again if the state is unable to meet his request for an additional $913 million next year for the ten-campus system.

Legislative analysis Mac Taylor on Wednesday released a report predicting the California legislature will face a $20.7 billion budget shortfall when it convenes in January. Last year’s wrangling wrestled a $40 billion deficit through a series of cuts, tax hikes and other fiscal high-wire acrobatics, but critics maintain it will only get harder next time around.

Earlier this month, lame duck Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said about next year’s budget negotiations, “It will be tougher because I think the low-hanging fruits and the medium-hanging fruits are all gone. I think that now we are going to the high-hanging fruits, and very tough decisions still have to be made.” Schwarzenegger is serving the final year of his second term.

California is one of only a handful of states that require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Although Democrats control both houses of the California legislature, they find themselves each year in an intractable stalemate with Republicans, who steadfastly cling to pledges of no new taxes.

George Lakoff wishes to end the annual gridlock created by minority rule by proposing a ballot initiative that would change two words in the state’s constitution and reverse the two-thirds fiscal requirement. Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley professor, has submitted the California Democracy Act, which reads, “All legislative action on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.” The proposal would “… end minority rule by simply having the majority decide on day-to-day economic issues,” he said on the television program “Democracy Now!” last night.

Lakoff noted that the two-thirds rule was instituted in 1978 with passage of Proposition 13, which is best known for capping annual limits on California property taxes to one percent. His proposed initiative must meet the state’s signature threshold before qualifying for the 2010 ballot.

Last week, California State University Board of Regents, voted to reduce student enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years, but that announcement did not generate nearly the same reaction as the UC Regents’ decision Thursday to increase fees.

Both the CSU and UC systems endured significant one-time cuts to their budgets last year. Their current fiscal plans are based on suppositions the state will restore those funds in the next round of budget appropriations.

However, it’s clear by the UC Regents’ meeting they’re not counting on it; as the governor has reminded them, only the “high-hanging fruit” remain.