Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have capped tuition increases at public universities and colleges, calling it a violation of the authority of the state Board of Regents and a breach of the state constitution.
On the final day of the legislative session, senators amended House Bill 319 to state that none of the 26 universities and colleges in the University System of Georgia could increase their tuition or fees by more than 3% year-over-year without approval from both houses of the General Assembly.
Kemp wrote in a statement that such a cap could not be introduced unless voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting the powers of the Board of Regents, which oversees the system.
“The Georgia Constitution clearly states that the authority to govern, control, and administer the university system and all institutions in the system resides with the Board of Regents,” Kemp wrote.
The provision touches on a wide-ranging dispute in which senators insisted on a $66 million cut in the system’s teaching budget. That equates to a total budget of $9 billion, which includes government money, tuition collected from students, and other revenue.
The senators said the universities should use some of their roughly $500 million in cash to cover the deficit.
The dispute was related to a push by Gov. Burt Jones to allow hospitals to be built in rural counties, including his hometown of Butts County, without state approval. That push was opposed by Marietta-based Wellstar Health System, which owns a county hospital that would face competition from a new facility that could be built on Jones’ father’s property.
Wellstar has also agreed to take over Augusta University’s hospitals, and Jones has attacked that deal, which Kemp strongly supports, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on Wellstar. Earlier this year, Augusta University received $105 million to purchase a new electronic medical record system. Jones argued that money was an unfair gift to Wellstar.
Jones, who is widely believed to be eyeing a run for governor, didn’t give up his argument with Kemp on Tuesday, saying the governor should support a tuition cap.
“With the rising cost of living and inflation, the General Assembly has worked to make college more affordable for hard-working Georgia families, a goal we should all share,” Jones said in a statement. “A 3% annual increase cap makes sense, especially given the Board of Regents has over $500 million in reserve funds. Perhaps their unilateral control over tuition increases should be reviewed in future legislatures.”
However, the cost of students at state universities and colleges actually fell by an average of 7.6% over the past year because governors eliminated one fee without increasing tuition. And the regents kept tuition fees unchanged for four out of six years before that.
Chancellor Sonny Perdue did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Regents normally set tuition for the following academic year at their April meeting, held this year on April 18-19 at the University of North Georgia at Dahlonega.
It is unclear whether Perdue will propose an increase in tuition fees. Last Thursday, after the legislature’s adjournment, he issued a statement calling the $66 million cut “an incredibly disappointing result.” Perdue said the schools were facing inflationary pressures and made a 10% budget cut in the 2021 budget, but it was not fully restored. He also said not all schools have enough money left over to absorb the cut.
House Higher Education Committee Chairman Chuck Martin, an Alpharetta Republican, said no one in the Senate had explained why the amendment was attached to the underlying bill aimed at getting rid of a credit service agency.
Martin declined to complain about Kemp’s veto or the governor’s finding that the cap was unconstitutional.
“I can’t say I would disagree with his interpretation,” he said.