By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
KNOXVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he doesn’t believe Democratic lawmakers’ request for a special session to discuss using surplus state revenues to halt tuition increases is “wise planning for the state.”
The legislators told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that lawmakers would like a session to be held in August, possibly before students return to school.
They also want to uses the state surplus to drop the sales tax on groceries below 5.25 percent. Haslam included funding in his budget to reduce the sales tax from 5.5 percent.
But the governor told The Associated Press before a meeting of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees on Thursday that there are many other issues to be addressed, such as dealing with uncertain costs associated with federal health care, which he said could be more than $200 million.
“I’m not sure I see the wisdom in having a knee-jerk special session right now when there a so many things on the board for us to consider when it comes to the budget,” said Haslam, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees. “I don’t think that would be wise planning for the state.”
Lawmakers said the state has about $225 million in excess revenues that could be used to help students.
Based on numbers provided by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system, Democrats said $78 million of the excess revenue would cover all proposed tuition increases at state colleges and universities.
“The question always is can you afford it,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “The answer is clearly yes.”
While he doesn’t support a special session, Haslam later told board members that he will give more attention to higher education, particularly tuition cost issues and improving graduation rates.
The governor said he’s planning meetings with higher education officials from both systems, as well as a series of roundtables statewide to gather information from educators and residents.
“We are going to put a priority on higher ed … and do everything we can to address the cost issues,” he said.
The state Board of Regents oversees six universities, 13 community colleges and 27 technology centers. Its finance committee recommended tuition hikes that will be presented to the full board later this month.
East Tennessee State has the potentially highest increase at 7.2 percent and Austin Peay the lowest at 3.4 percent.
The university system has an enrollment of about 50,000 students at campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin; the Health Science Center in Memphis; state Institutes of Agriculture and Public Service; and the Space Institute in Tullahoma.
On Thursday, the UT Board of Trustees approved tuition hikes that range from 8 percent at the Knoxville campus to 3.5 percent at the university’s College of Law.
However, Trustee Doug Horne said he’d like to see a year when there’s no increase.
“We have goals,” he said. “Let’s have a goal of not having a tuition increase next year.”
The board also approved a five-year strategic plan for the university, as well as a new tuition model that would be implemented in the fall of 2013.
Under the tuition model, students would have “the expectation of tuition increases of 3 percent for the next three years. After four years, they pay the prevailing rate,” according to UT officials.