Deep budget cuts to California's public colleges and universities have caused student fees to skyrocket in recent years, but administrators would have to find another way to make up for declining state funding under a bill moving through the Legislature.
The legislation would establish a baseline student fee for the 2011-12 academic year at each of California's three public higher education systems -- the University of California, California State University and the California Community Colleges -- and would cap subsequent fee increases at 5 percent a year. The schools serve a combined 3.5 million students annually.
The measure also would require that fees remain constant throughout a student's enrollment, so year-to-year increases would apply only to newly enrolled students.
"We have to get universities to realize that students and their families are not walking ATM machines," said the bill's author, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. "The goal is to take the erratic nature out of student fee increases so that families can budget for college and the universities get better at their own budgeting."
Over the past five years, state budget cuts have caused student fees to rise by 61 percent at UC, to $8,000 per year for resident undergraduates, and 68 percent at CSU, to $4,900 per year. Fees at the state's 110 community colleges dropped during that period but shot up 30 percent this year.
Those increases have prompted protests at the Capitol and on campuses throughout the state in recent months.
UC and CSU officials have objected to Florez's bill, which will be the subject of a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday.
In a letter to the committee, UC administrators said they could not realistically commit to the proposed fee restrictions without a guarantee of continued state funding.
"This would present an untenable situation for the university and strike at the heart of a quality education for which the University of California is known," the letter said.
By prohibiting fee increases for current students, the bill would place a disproportionate financial burden on incoming students, said Erik Fallis, a spokesman for the CSU chancellor's office.
Florez said he agreed the Legislature should establish a minimum level of guaranteed funding to higher education and hopes his bill will lead to a productive dialogue between lawmakers and university leaders.
"There's a shared blame for the situation we're in, and I think this finally forces the discussion we need to have," he said.
In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to preserve higher education funding at least at its current level.
He also proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that at least 10 percent of general fund spending would go toward UC and CSU. This year, funding to the two systems dropped to 7.5 percent of the general fund.
The governor has until June 24 to qualify his proposal for the November ballot.
Under other bills scheduled for hearings this week:
-- It would be a crime for a person to carry weapons onto a city bus, light rail system or other public transit vehicle under legislation before the Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. State law currently allows people who have a concealed-weapons permit to carry a gun onto a public transit system, while people without such permits are allowed to carry unloaded guns in public if the weapon is licensed.
The bill by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, would make it a misdemeanor to bring an array of weapons onto a public transit system. That includes unloaded guns. The banned weapons would include any firearms, BB or pellet guns, hand grenades or replica hand grenades, and certain knives. Those weapons also would be prohibited at public transit facilities.
The only exemption in the bill for those with concealed-weapons permits relates to retired peace officers. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a sentence of up to one year in county jail.
-- It would be more difficult for retiring public employees to pad their pensions under a bill by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. The bill set for a Senate Public Employment and Retirement Committee hearing Monday would prohibit pension boards from using last-minute promotions, bonuses and vacation time to inflate retirees' payouts, a practice known as "pension spiking."
-- California would ban caffeinated malt beverages. Bill writers warn that the caffeine boost can cause drinkers, especially young people, to misjudge their blood alcohol levels. They also said the combination of stimulants and depressants can cause strain on the heart and nervous system. The bill will be heard Monday in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee.
-- Farmers would be banned from applying most pesticides to fields and orchards that lie within a quarter a mile to half mile of a school under legislation by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda. The bill would apply to pesticides used for commercial agriculture and pest control, although certain organic pesticides and chemicals used for mosquito control would be exempt. The bill will be discussed Wednesday before the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
-- Ballot initiatives affecting the state budget would have a 15-year expiration date under a reform proposal before the Senate Budget Committee on Monday. If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, would let a majority of the Legislature extend expiring initiatives by another 15 years if lawmakers decide the ballot measure is achieving its objectives and is cost-effective.
-- Teenagers looking for a lunchtime electrolyte boost would be out of luck under a bill before the Senate Health Committee on Thursday. The measure by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would ban the sale of sugar-sweetened sports drinks in public middle schools and high schools during school hours. The state already bans the drinks in elementary schools, while sodas have been absent from school vending machines since 2007. The bill has the backing of the governor as part of a statewide push to target childhood obesity.