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WSU Government Relations Newsbeat

Legislature moving toward adjournment?

After a busy weekend in the statehouse it appears as though the Legislature is progressing toward adjournment. This would come not a week too soon as its 30-day special session is due to expire on Wednesday.

You can read more about key developments here and here.

There is still a lot of work to be done before lawmakers can leave town. An operating budget agreement has yet to be announced and there is no resolution so far as to a debt reduction measure that would pave the way for the passage of a capital budget.

In addition, WSU is tracking a pension bill that, as approved by the Senate, would allow universities to continue to offer a defined contribution retirement plan to exempt staff. It needs a concurrence vote in the House.

And on a final note, the Senate on Sunday gave final approval to a bill that would replace the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board with a new Council for Higher Education. Many functions of the HEC Board would still exist and be transferred to other entities after the board sunsets on July 1, 2012. The membership and responsibilities of the newly formed council would be determined by a steering committee.

University Center bill hailed as a “triumph of persistence”

The weekend papers featured a couple of opinion pieces worth noting that hailed last week’s signing of legislation that would create a pathway for WSU to assume management of the University Center of North Puget Sound in 2014.
This Seattle Times editorial hailed the development as a “triumph of persistence”.
And this column co-authored by Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen and Nick Harper appeared in the Everett Herald. In it, they assert the bill represents “a major victory for North Puget Sound residents.”

Governor signs North Puget Sound University Center bill

Governor Christine Gregoire this afternoon signed Senate Bill 5636, creating a pathway for WSU to gain management of the University Center in Everett in 2014.
The bill won’t actually take effect until the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board considers whether the matter must first go through its systems design review process. With the HEC Board’s blessing, a coordinating and planning council would draft a strategic plan for appropriate baccalaureate expansion at the center to submit to the Legislature along with a budget. The Legislature must approve future expansions.
WSU also would be required to begin an engineering program at the center.
University President Elson Floyd and regents Laura Jennings and Connie Niva participated in the bill signing ceremony along with an array of key legislators and North Puget Sound community leaders and stakeholders.

State Update: Tuition flexibility bill clears House 79-17

The state House of Representatives Monday afternoon approved a bill granting Washington’s six public four-year universities tuition setting authority for eight years beginning this fall.  House Bill 1795 was approved 79-17 and now heads to the Senate, where it likely will be sent to the Ways and Means Committee.

The bill would give universities a choice of setting tuition rates up to levels prescribed in the budget as is currently done or exceed that threshold and trigger new financial aid obligations for low and middle income students.

Either way, all universities would increase what they put into financial aid programs. Currently, 3.5 percent of all tuition revenue is held back for financial aid. Under the bill, that figure would increase to 4 percent for universities that do not exceed tuition thresholds listed in the budget and 5 percent for those that do.

This authority would last for four years.  Universities then would have authority to set rates for an additional four years with limits tied to rates seen in other Global Challenge States.

The bill also contains new performance and accountability requirements and would authorize universities to set differential tuition rates for high cost programs, though those differential rates could trigger new financial aid requirements.

State Update: Looking back, looking ahead

Things are ghostly quiet in the state capital today as the second week of the Legislature’s 30-day special session has now come and gone. And while an end is not yet in sight, there are a few noteworthy items to pass along.

First, the governor announced this week that a tax amnesty program designed to give businesses a chance to catch up on their back taxes penalty free netted far, far more than was anticipated. For the state, it’s a windfall of $182 million which can be used to help narrow the spending gap between House and Senate budget proposals.

The Olympian’s Brad Shannon has a good recap here.

Also of note, the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday advanced House Bill 1981 after making key changes that would allow WSU to continue to offer a defined contribution plan to new professional staff. The underlying bill would have directed such staffers to participate in the state’s PERS system. WSU and other state universities argued that would prevent staff from being offered a portable retirement plan that they could easily transfer assets from as their career path takes them to other jobs with defined contribution retirement plans down the road.

The bill, with all of its changes, now must be approved by the full Senate before being sent back to the House.

Finally, there’s been lots of work going on behind the scenes on House Bill 1795, which would grant state universities a four-year window in which they could set their own tuition rates subject to a series of conditions. A vote in the House could come as soon as early next week. So stay tuned.

Governor signs branch campus, biofuels, purchasing bills

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday afternoon signed a trio of bills of interest to WSU.

House Bill 1422 authorizes the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a demonstration project involving the use of biomass in the production of jet fuel. WSU, an international leader in this endeavor, is to be consulted as the project is developed.

House Bill 1586 authorizes doctoral degrees to be offered at branch campuses. WSU became involved in the issue at the outset when the university first considered placing a doctor of nursing practice degree program at its Vancouver campus.

Finally, House Bill 1663 relieves universities of requirements to purchase prescribed amounts of services and equipment from the Department of Corrections. It was one of a series of bills introduced this year in hopes of relieving universities of regulatory burdens.

Recapping bills approved by the legislature

With the mayhem of the final days of the regular session given way to the relative calm of special session, it seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at the bills of most notable interest to WSU and the higher education community that have advanced to the governor’s desk.

So, here they are, in numerical order.

  • House Bill 1586 authorizes branch campuses to offer doctoral degrees.
  • House Bill 1663 removes the requirement that universities purchases prescribed amounts of equipment and services from the Department of Corrections.
  • House Bill 1808, which was signed last week, requires high schools to offer dual credit courses to give students the opportunity to earn college credit. Universities would have to develop a list of courses for which credit could be given should incoming students achieve a qualifying score on proficiency exams or demonstrating certain competencies.
  • House Bill 1822, signed into law this week, requires the Higher Education Coordinating Board to recognize and integrate an online, nonprofit university.
  • Senate Bill 5304 would require the state’s Caseload Forecast Council to project how many students will be eligible for the College Bound Scholarship program.
  • Senate Bill 5442, which the governor signed last week, allows universities the option of developing programs that would allow academically qualified students to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years.
  • Senate Bill 5636 is the bill that creates a pathway for WSU to gain management control of the North Puget Sound University Center in Everett by 2014.

State STARS funding helps land smart grid expert

Washington State University announced today that it has hired an internationally-renowned expert in smart grid technologies as a Boeing Distinguished Professor.

You can read more about it here.

Championed by Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, STARS funding is designed to help the state lure high caliber faculty in new economy fields.  WSU has worked in Olympia to maintain funding for the program in the face of major budget cuts.

In other news, the Legislature reconvened without fanfare this morning for the first of a 30-day special session. The Senate Ways & Means Committee is meeting this afternoon to consider several bills but the day has been otherwise uneventful as members get their bearings and plot out a path forward.