Power change in Wash. Senate endangers prepaid tuition program

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SEATTLE — Until a month ago, lawmakers studying Washington's prepaid tuition program were focused on getting rid of a state policy that threatened its solvency.

After the leadership of the state Senate appeared to be shifting away from the Democrats and toward a mostly Republican coalition led by Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom, they turned 180 degrees and started talking instead about closing the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, one of the few ways the Legislature helps middle class families send their kids to college.

Tom, who is chair of the legislative GET advisory committee, has been talking about closing the GET program for years. The former chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, who has said he has his own kids' college money in the program, appears to be using some of his new leadership power to promote that idea to a bigger audience.

Tom said last week that it was time for the state to get out of the prepaid tuition business, and this week the advisory committee is expected to distribute its report calling for closing the GET program to all future participants.

When asked Wednesday how popular was the idea of closing the GET program while honoring the promises made to all current investors, Tom said, "Nobody in Olympia likes to shut down a program."

He is haunted, however, by a projected program deficit of about $631 million, which is the estimated shortfall the program would face if every participant -- including babies and kindergarten students -- decided to go to college this year and use their GET savings to pay their tuition.

"We just don't want to make that hole any bigger," he said.

Tom adds, however, that he has more than just a problem with the deficit. He also worries about the way the GET program controls the Legislature's actions when it comes to college tuition.

"The GET is the 800-pound gorilla and the tail is wagging the dog," he said.

GET Director Betty Lochner said Wednesday nothing has changed concerning the solvency of the GET program. The state actuary has said repeatedly that the chance of the GET program running out of money and not being able to meet its obligations to future college students is about 1 percent.

Closing the program or stopping new participants from joining GET will cost the state an estimated $1.67 billion over 11 years after the program runs out of cash in 2025 because no new money would be coming in, Lochner said.