College students meeting with state legislators yesterday at the University of Toledo had a simple message about a complicated problem: reform higher education funding.
They didn't get all the answers they were looking for, but representatives from a group of eight students said they were happy they had a forum on the topic.
"It was positive dialogue, but we still have a lot more to do," said Guy Beeman, president of Undergraduate Student Government at UT. "We need to do something else outside the box. I think we all agree on that."
The undergraduate student group sponsored the unusual meeting, prompted by a desire to reform growing tuition costs.
House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), and Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) attended the event, while Rep. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) met with the students in a roundtable format after the session ended.
The exchange spanned nearly two hours and, at times, was partisan and heated.
Students, citing concerns over tuition increases coupled with decreasing state funding for public institutions, posed a variety of questions to the officials, including whether they would back - or believe constituents would back - a half-cent sales tax to fund higher education. That's an idea UT President Dan Johnson has been promoting.
"I'm just looking for my future, for my kids' future. Is the state willing to look at the budget? Nine percent [more for tuition], that's a lot," said College Republican President Mike Betz, citing the proposed tuition increase at UT.
While legislators repeatedly credited Mr. Johnson for his innovative proposals about higher education reform, the response was not favorable or optimistic toward using or seeking a sales tax to help fund college students.
Mr. Johnson has estimated a half-cent sales tax would raise enough to pay half of the college tuition for undergraduates at four-year state institutions.
"To say we're going to have another half-cent sales tax, I can't see it happening," Mr. Latta said, noting pushes to seek a future half-cent sales tax for the state's general fund.
Mr. Ujvagi said taxes in general are not popular statewide.
"Right now, there's this absolute drumbeat - lower taxes, lower taxes," he said.
Mr. Johnson last month unveiled new initiatives at his state of the university address, including ideas to look at a "public-private" model for the university. One aspect of that concept could include seeking local tax dollars for UT, an idea that one state legislator said he could not support.
Mr. Redfern said he feared a setup like that would create another K-12 school situation, where some communities can't financially support their districts.
The representative said he supports new funding for higher education, but believes it would be more politically palatable in a more moderate form, such as an income tax approach.
Mr. Johnson repeatedly urged the legislators to take action, saying the tuition situation is rapidly approaching the "tipping point."
"If this is not the plan, what is the plan? Somebody's got to come up with a plan," he said.
"We need your help, and we don't feel like we're getting it. We're asking for it - in a few months or years, we'll be crying for it."
After taking in the feedback, Mr. Johnson ended his thoughts with an off-the-cuff idea. Why not add a new box on personal tax forms: Check here to give $5 to higher education.
"It wouldn't cost anything," Mr. Johnson noted.
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