Alarmed by a proposal to raise tuition at University of California campuses by up to 5% annually for five years, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) on Wednesday proposed a constitutional amendment be placed on the 2016 ballot to strip the UC system of its historic autonomy and give lawmakers new controls as they see fit.
The constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, would give the Legislature power to adopt new laws that would set its oversight powers. For instance, lawmakers could give the Legislature the power to veto tuition increases and executive pay raises approved by the Board of Regents.
"It behooves us, and ultimately the voters, to revisit the concentrated power and autonomy of the UC Board of Regents which appears to be out of touch with average working-class families," Lara said in a statement. "At a time when access, affordability and diversity are in question, we should allow the public to have a direct say in how its public university system operates."
The Legislature would have to muster a two-thirds vote to put the constitutional amendment before voters. The proposed amendment says, in part, "The University of California is hereby continued in existence in the state government, and is subject to legislative control as may be provided by statute."
The ballot measure also says the Board of Regents would continue to govern the system, but "subjected only to that legislative control as may be necessary to ensure the security of its funds and compliance with the terms of the endowments of the university."
The constitutional amendment also says UC shall focus its recruitment efforts on California residents.
"To ensure that the University of California is a University for California, I am introducing legislation to keep our state's world-renowned institution of higher education accountable to California taxpayers," Lara said.
Lara introduced the legislation the day after Senate Democrats proposed an increase in state funding for the autonomous UC system to avoid tuition hikes.
UC spokesman Steve Montiel said there are already constructive discussions between university officials and legislators about how to fund higher education.
"This proposal seems to be a distraction from the central issue of the state's funding of higher education," Montiel said. "A debate about the California constitution doesn't seem constructive at this point."
He said the UC is already accountable to the Legislature, providing reports on important topics including the budget each year.
A similar proposal in 2009 by then-Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) failed to win legislative approval to be placed on the ballot.
Yee was upset back then over UC regents' decision to approve salaries of $450,000 and $400,000, as well as free housing, for new chancellors at UC San Francisco and UC Davis. At the same 2009 meeting, the governing board voted to increase undergraduate fees by 9.3% for the following year.
Former Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), a coauthor of the 2009 proposal, said legislative leaders listening to pressure from powerful members of the Board of Regents did not let the bill out of the Legislature.