Amid the feel-good proceedings of the Legislature's swearing-in ceremony, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins sent a clear signal Monday of a brewing policy showdown: the proposed University of California tuition hikes.
Atkins, the San Diego Democrat who was unanimously reelected speaker Monday, focused much of her remarks in the Assembly chamber on the UC regents' plan to increase tuition by as much as 5% each year for the next five years.
"No Californian should be priced out of a UC education because they come from a middle-class family," Atkins said, garnering applause from lawmakers.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Atkins said she "looked out in the audience..and saw a lot of heads nodding--Democrats and Republicans."
"The members of this Assembly don't support increased tuition," she said.
Many legislators, including Atkins and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), have vocally opposed the tuition hikes since UC President Janet Napolitano announced the plan last month. Gov. Jerry Brown also objected to the proposal, but the UC Regents nevertheless voted to raise tuition as much as 28% over five years, depending on state funding.
Budget negotiations will be the next staging ground for this fight, and one where Atkins said lawmakers can exercise leverage over the university system
Atkins announced that the Assembly will take a "zero-based" approach to crafting the UC budget, which would build the institution's budget from zero, rather than use the previous year's spending as a baseline. The approach would mean a tougher examination of every line item.
"We can look at the efficiencies. We can look at the prioritization of how they advocate spending their dollars. And we can have a real discussion about it," Atkins said, adding that she is also prepared to put more state funding toward the UC system to fend off tuition hikes.
Lawmakers "have the ability to use the budget to make a point, which we've clearly done in the past," Atkins said. "If President Napolitano and the other regents are serious about wanting to fund education and find a way to support students, then we've got to come together to do that."