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Arizona AG sues Board of Regents over ‘unconstitutional’ in-state tuition hike

PHOENIX — Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents over the group’s decision to increase in-state tuition at the state’s three public universities by as much as 370 percent.

Brnovich filed the lawsuit on Friday, which alleged that the board “dramatically and unconstitutionally” increased the price of in-state tuition and mandatory fees by “315 to 370 percent” in the last 15 years. Sarah Harper, a spokeswoman for the board, said it has not been served with the complaint as of Friday afternoon.

The lawsuit claimed that the board “shirked its constitutional [duties]” because its tuition-setting policy does not “comply with the constitutional mandate,” “unlawfully charges students…significantly more than the actual cost” and causes the “illegal expenditure of public monies.”

It also claimed that the board’s decision to grant in-state tuition to students under what was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that granted temporary protection from deportation and a temporary work permit to children who came to the U.S. as a child, “[risked] triggering a federal requirement that in-state tuition benefits must be extended to all U.S. citizens.”

President Donald Trump ended the program last week, but nearly 50 superintendents from Arizona signed a letter in support of DACA.

In a press conference, Brnovich said the board was not complying with Arizona’s state constitution, which requires state universities to be “as nearly free as possible.”

The state wants the board to “abide by that principle,” Brnovich said, adding that regents looks at other state universities to determine the tuition increases.

“We think that’s the wrong focus. What they should be focusing on is how do we make this as free as possible,” he said.

Regents approved the most recent tuition increases at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona in April. Tuition and fees increased by 1.4 percent at ASU, 3.9 percent at the UA and 2.7 percent at NAU.

There was no increase in base tuition for most continuing NAU undergraduates under the university’s tuition guarantee program or for most continuing undergraduate students enrolled in the UA’s guaranteed tuition program.

Funding cuts factor in tuition hikes

Brnovich may be right that tuition has soared in the state well beyond inflation. But state funding cuts have been a major factor.

A report by the Legislature’s budget analysts shows that inflation-adjusted state funding has gone from about $9,600 per student in the 2008 budget year to $3,500 in the 2017 year. Universities have raised tuition to make up the difference.

The lawsuit against in-state tuition for immigrant students was expected after former GOP legislator Russell Pearce sent a letter giving Brnovich 60 days to sue before taking legal action himself. Pearce’s threat came after a court ruled that students in the DACA program must pay higher-cost out-of-state tuition.

Pearce is a former state senator best known as the author of Arizona’s landmark immigration bill, SB1070. He argued that a 2006 voter-enacted law prohibits public benefits for anyone living in Arizona without legal immigration status.

There are nearly 28,000 DACA recipients in Arizona, and the lawsuit and ruling would affect at least several hundred state university students and an unknown number attending community colleges.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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