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Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville

NASHVILLE — Senate Education Committee Republicans on Wednesday backed a bill implementing a two-year freeze on tuition increases at Tennessee's colleges and universities, as well as limits on future tuition boosts.

The legislation is a response from angry Senate Republicans over assertions by University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents officials that tuition increases were caused, in part, by substantial cutbacks in state support of public colleges and universities.

Twenty years ago, figures show, state government funded close to 70 percent of higher education. But that's been scaled back, and during the Great Recession, higher education saw even more cuts. Today, state support accounts for just below 30 percent of higher education budgets.

The bill, backed by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, has not started moving in the House. The estimated $32 million cost to colleges and universities could make for hard-going in at least the House Finance Committee.

In her effort to pin blame on higher education officials, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, the bill's sponsor, blindsided UT and Board of Regents officials with a presentation, complete with a slide show of what she called "inflated" pay and too many employees.

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Gresham singled out UT in Knoxville, saying tuition over the past 20 years has risen from $2,200 per student to more than $12,000.

"Some have said tuition has gone up as enrollment has grown, and the state has not kept up its end of the bargain," Gresham said. "While this may be somewhat true, enrollment at UT-Knoxville has fluctuated somewhat. UT-Knoxville's entire fiscal growth has been on the backs of our students."

The bill would freeze tuition and fees at this year's levels until the end of the 2018-2019 school year. It places higher hurdles on approving future increases, requiring each system's full governing boards to OK increases above 2 percent of the Consumer Price Index.

Another provision says incoming freshmen — and their parents — would pay the same tuition and fees throughout their four-year university careers.

Gresham, meanwhile, charged there are 1,465 UT system employees paid more than $100,000 per year. In the Tennessee Board of Regents, there are 945.

The chairman also compared the management positions to what she said were equivalent positions in the state in areas chief financial officers, general counsels and chief information officers. The pay is between 14 to 37 percent greater in higher education, she said.

It's unclear whether Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will be supporting Republican senators' approach.

But then again, the governor has something he wants from lawmakers.

Haslam is pushing legislation that would bust up the Tennessee Board of Regents by spinning off its six four-year universities while keeping community colleges and technical schools in the Regents system.

And some Senate Republicans think that could form the basis of a deal.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via Twitter at @AndySher1.

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