Lt. Gov. Gray Davis proposed a ballot initiative Thursday that would freeze fees at California's public colleges and universities for three years beginning in July 1997.
If approved by voters, the initiative would amend the state Constitution to prohibit fee hikes at the University of California, California State University and the state's community colleges until 2000 and would limit increases for the following five years.
Davis, a probable candidate for governor in 1998, will have about two months to gather the nearly 700,000 signatures needed to qualify his initiative--called the Student Fee Freeze and Affordable College Act of 1996--for November's ballot.
Davis, who sits on both the UC Board of Regents and the Cal State Board of Trustees, said the measure would give parents and students a much-needed break from skyrocketing college costs.
"The spiral of fee increases represents an unaffordable and unacceptable tax on the middle-class," Davis said at a Los Angeles news conference, noting that since 1990, fees have risen 134% at UC, 103% at Cal State and 300% at community colleges. "We owe it to the young people of this state and to their parents and to ourselves to keep a lid on fees."
But UC Regent Roy Brophy called Davis' initiative a "political gesture" that would hurt the quality of public education by reducing the money available to run the state's colleges.
"I would like to ask him, where is the money going to come from? Do you think we have it squirreled away?" Brophy asked. "If he doesn't see the relationship between maintaining fees to continuing quality, then we've got a real problem."
Davis defended his proposal as a way to send a message to the university systems' governing boards: "Exercise restraint on fee increases or run the risk of losing the prerogative to set fees altogether."
Davis said he filed the initiative in part because he believed that some of his fellow board members would rather raise fees than "buttonhole the governor and the Legislature and keep the pressure on" for increased state funding.
Once the state attorney general's office evaluates the proposed initiative, supporters must collect the needed signatures between mid-February and April 19. Usually, an initiative effort has 150 days to gather signatures. But because he began so late, Davis said, backers will be forced to move at a much faster pace.
Still, Davis said he has talked with some signature-gathering firms who believe that despite the short time frame, the idea will be popular enough to attract enough signatures. He estimated that the effort would cost 80 cents a signature and said he will donate an unspecified portion of the money.
Student groups were pleased with Davis' action.
"It's great because it brings education to the forefront," said Marc Levine, president of the Cal State Student Assn., which represents 340,000 students. Levine said he believed that students would participate in a signature drive.
"Students have been getting a raw deal with the high increases," he said. "I think student body associations on every campus should have an interest in at least seeing this make the ballot."
But college officials said Davis has made a mistake by failing to specify where revenues will come from, if not from fee hikes.
"Is he saying we should have taxes go up? Or that we should cut money to K-12 or to prisons or health and welfare?" asked Cal State Chancellor Barry Munitz. "If his argument is that we should get more general revenue money [from the state budget], then I think he's right."
But without such a provision, "this is an initiative to cut higher education's budget," Munitz said. "If fees are low, we have less money. If we have less money, we hire fewer people . . . we offer fewer classes . . . we have room for fewer students."
Munitz added that although fees have gone up dramatically in recent years, California's public institutions remain a good buy when compared to similar schools nationwide.
At his news conference, Davis said he is not against fee increases in general, but the recent and rapid spate of hikes has overburdened middle-class families.
"We need a cooling off period," he said.