February 16, 2005
Students at Arizona’s public universities asked the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday for some relief from high tuition.
Attorney Paul Gattone, who represents the students, told judges that the Arizona Board of Regents violated the state constitution, which requires tuition be "as nearly free as practical.’’
The Legislature also is ignoring its constitutional obligation to provide the funds for proper maintenance of the three universities, he said.
The lawsuit deals with the decision by the regents two years ago to boost tuition by nearly 40 percent, a move that hiked the cost for Arizona residents by close to $1,000 a year.
But Gattone told Capitol Media Services that if he wins the right to pursue the lawsuit, he will amend it to also challenge the 14 percent increase imposed last year, as well as to preclude proposed increases announced Monday by the university presidents — increases that, in some cases, approach 11 percent.
A trial judge threw out the students’ lawsuit last year. The state argued that the regents and the lawmakers have absolute immunity from being sued for the decisions they make.
On Tuesday, though, appellate Judge G. Murray Snow suggested that the concept of separation of powers does not give the Legislature or Board of Regents unfettered rights to do what they want. He said they are not entitled to ignore constitutional requirements.
The judges noted that the students sued after the Legislature refused to increase state funding to the three universities, a move that forced the large tuition hikes. But lawmakers did provide some funds.
Assistant attorney general Bruce Skolnik said a court order to provide more cash to the universities would lead to real problems.
He said that could force lawmakers to take cash from other priorities, such as programs for the elderly, children and the disabled. Skolnik said the constitution empowers the Legislature to sort through these priorities and decide how to spend available funds.
"Money doesn’t grow on trees,’’ he told the court. "It applies with equal force to the state of Arizona, which does not have unlimited financial resources at its disposal.’’