Lawmakers awaits final Charter Proposal
By Dan Heuchert
Less than a week before the opening of the 2005 General Assembly session, local legislators expressed tentative support for a proposal to loosen the state’s regulatory hold on its colleges and universities.
Speaking at U.Va.’s annual legislative forum, held Jan. 7 in the Newcomb Hall ballroom, four local lawmakers said they generally favor the idea of cutting through the red tape that hampers university operations, but added they would review a final copy of the proposed chartered universities legislation before deciding whether or not to support it.
“It’s a moving target,” said Del. Mitchell Van Yahres, D-57th, who sits on a state committee reviewing the legislation. “We still don’t have a bill.”
Other legislators in attendance included Del. Robert B. Bell III, R-58th; Del. R. Steven Landes, R-25th; and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-25th. Holly Herman, the longtime legislative aide to Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-24th, did not address issues, instead taking copious notes. Approximately 250 people attended the forum.
Van Yahres said he had serious concerns with the initial charter proposal, which applied only to U.Va,. the College of William & Mary and Virginia Tech. But a recent revamping that allows Virginia’s other public colleges to participate to varying extents “makes it far more palatable,” he said.
“I agree that the concept has a lot of merit, but it also has a lot of questions,” he said.
Landes was wary of the notion of oversight. “The issue of governance is a stumbling block for me,” he said. “Who is the University going to answer to more?”
The charter proposal grants greater oversight responsibilities to the individual schools’ governing boards, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature.
“The legislature does not lose its authority,” Van Yahres said. “Changes enacted by the legislature can be repealed.”
Under the charter proposal, schools would agree to forego some state funding in exchange for more freedom from centralized control, including the ability to set tuition, approve construction projects and loosen procurement rules.
In recent years, fluctuations in the state’s economy have forced the state to reduce its funding of higher education; colleges argue that greater local control — particularly the power to set tuition — would allow for more predictability and better long-range planning.
“Charter is a response to the state’s failure to step up to the plate to fund higher education,” Deeds said.
In response to an audience question about tuition increases under the charter proposal, Deeds — a candidate for attorney general the fall — said affordability is “my No. 1 concern” about the charter proposal, a concern echoed by his colleagues from both parties.
Another speaker questioned the fate of state employees under the charter proposal, and urged Van Yahres to seek written guarantees that employees of chartered schools would receive compensation and benefits at least comparable to their state peers, and that new employees would not be given lesser pay and benefits.
Van Yahres declined to offer written guarantees, but promised he would “watch out for what happens to state employees.”
Two faculty members spoke out against the state’s passage last year of the “affirmation of marriage act,” which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prevents state agencies from offering spousal benefits to homosexual partners. The ban hinders recruitment and retention of talented gay faculty, they argued.
Van Yahres said he will sponsor a measure to repeal the act, but that he expects an uphill battle. All three of the Republican legislators said they supported passage of the act, and expressed varying degrees of support for a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban homosexual marriage.
The 46-day “short” General Assembly session opened Wednesday. None of the lawmakers expected a repeat of last year’s budget deadlock that forced an unprecedented extension of the session. With the economy rebounding, there will be as much as $1.2 million more revenue to allocate in the second year of the two-year state budget cycle.
“There seems to be more agreement on things related to the budget,” Landes said, adding that the governor has proposed adding another percentage point to the 2 percent pay increase approved last year and scheduled to take effect in December.
“That could be improved upon,” Landes said.
Besides the charter proposal, Deeds predicted that transportation and health care issues would dominate this year’s session.