Proposed bill would allow Arizona attorney general to sue state universities over tuition

A proposal in the Arizona House would revive a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Mark Brnovich against the board that oversees state universities over what he calls overly high tuition after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Brnovich had no right to sue.

Brnovich is backing the proposal from Rep. Jacqueline Parker, HB2841, approved Feb. 18 by Republicans on the House Government and Elections Committee. Democrats opposed the move.

Brnovich sued the Arizona Board of Regents in 2017, saying the three state universities had raised tuition so much that they were violating a provision of the state constitution that they be "as nearly free as possible."

But lower courts dismissed the case, pointing to a 1960 Supreme Court case that found the attorney general could not sue a state agency on his own over an alleged constitutional violation. Brnovich argued that old case should be overturned, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument in November, citing its precedent, existing laws and the fact the Legislature never acted to give him that authority.

The court did revive part of Brnovich’s lawsuit where he sought to show the Regents illegally spent funds giving tuition breaks to students in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program before the high court ruled that DACA recipients were not entitled to in-state tuition.

At Thursday’s hearing, one of Brnovich’s top deputies said he still wants to pursue his case over tuition rates and urged support for Parker’s proposal to give him that specific right.

RELATED: Board of Regents to set some tuition rates for Arizona's 3 public universities

"As Arizona’s attorney for the people, Attorney General Brnovich feels very passionately about seeking to enforce this constitutional provision to ensure that tuition doesn’t keep skyrocketing and that it kind of becomes more in line with what the framers of the constitution intended," said Josh Kredit, deputy attorney general for law & policy.

Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler questioned why the attorney general would sue another state agency, essentially requiring taxpayers to pay for both prosecuting and defending a lawsuit.

But GOP Rep. Kevin Payne said that wasn’t the point.

"In reality, the big savings is all those people that are going to that university are going to pay less," Payne said. "So in the long run, you save money."

The measure passed the committee on a 7-6 vote.

Democrats noted that big increases in tuition in the past decade followed big cuts in state funding to universities.

But Rep. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican, said the tuition increases were "four times the reduction in state funding," and said Brnovich should be given the right to see if they were indeed violating the constitution.

Butler said it would make more sense for Republicans and Democrats to work together to lower tuition.

"This bill, it feels like sour grapes to me," Butler said. "It seems ... the attorney general sued, and the case I think was dismissed by the Supreme Court, and now you’re coming to the Legislature to try to I guess put your thumb on the scale."

Brnovich’s spokeswoman, Katie Conner, said in a statement that the office "welcomes the support of anyone who will join us in calling for more accountability and transparency at Arizona’s public universities."

"Attorney General Brnovich remains committed to assisting hardworking families and students who are getting priced out of higher education," Conner said.

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