On Oct. 20, 2004, gubernatorial candidate Chris Gregoire came to Ellensburg to campaign. The former candidate, now governor, discussed making higher education more affordable for the masses. For the 2004-2005 school year, tuition costs were a measly $5,154 for in-state undergraduates. Tuition is now $9,886.
So much for that campaign promise.
The last seven years under a Democrat have been especially hard for students. On Sept. 14, Republican Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna visited Pullman hoping to make an impression on ASWSU. During his speech and Q&A, McKenna answered questions about his plan for higher education.
Students have seen a democrat fail to deliver, and they are not enthusiastic about republicans, either. McKenna will have an uphill battle with many students who are beholden to thinking that republicans do not care about higher education.
He does have some tools at his disposal to get the student vote. McKenna was a former student body president at the University of Washington, and has thus seen the higher education battle first-hand from the student perspective.
As attorney general, McKenna has acted more as a law enforcement officer and a litigator than a politician. He is a bit more independent than some who have worked within the confines of the state legislature. Given the low approval ratings of both parties, that difference might be the breath of fresh air students need.
That said, Gregoire was also a former attorney general when she ran for governor. Her record is very typical of a liberal democrat, minus education. A difference may be that McKenna himself had to work under a democrat, during which time he built a working relationship with the governor on many important issues.
A key sign of McKenna’s independence was evident in another Sept. 14 speech he gave before The Foley Institute on the horrible crime of human trafficking. McKenna highlighted the work he was doing to fight human trafficking and mentioned that the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project was an ally in the fight. Most republicans would shy away from anything with the term “immigrant rights” but the group and McKenna are in agreement on some services each can provide. When a criminal case is brought up, McKenna’s office will forward victims to the group so it can help victims with obtaining legal status.
This independent streak is what Washington and students need in order to see real gains for higher education.
McKenna’s plan for restoring higher education was rather simple, and it did not involve tax increases or spending cuts on other programs. McKenna pointed out that the budget usually doubles every 12 to 15 years. His plan is to use the budget increase disproportionately on higher education until the percentage spent on higher education is closer to the levels in the early'90s.
This plan is feasible, but as McKenna admitted, results would not happen overnight.
The plan does have some advantages. Students are a particularly weak lobby in many cases. Though McKenna offered advice to ASWSU on how to more effectively lobby, there is still no way the student body can compete with constitutionally protected K-12 education, AARP, unions or other organizations that have louder voices and deeper pocketbooks.
Through avoiding cuts to health care or public education, there is a chance higher education will regain some of its lost funding. Usually, governors promise to get higher education funding through taxation when they know full well it will not pass, or they have ulterior motives. For example, the 2010 state income tax proposal promised to give a portion of the revenue generated to higher education, but might have also been used to expand an income tax to the middle class.
While students might be able to lobby local representatives, the vast majority of state lawmakers are not from a location that contains strong ties to a four-year university. That puts students in a predicament.
Fortunately, the governor has the influence to make changes happen. As governor, McKenna could certainly get the legislature in line on higher education with enough effort. The past eight years have seen little use of that influence. That is why a good deal of trust will have to go into picking the next governor. McKenna, like any political candidate in this climate, will have a long way to go. However, for coming out to Pullman and pitching a feasible education plan, McKenna has made a strong start on the path to become the 23rd governor of the state of Washington.