Tuition plan becomes 2010 issue for governor’s race

Published 10:44 pm Monday, March 16, 2009

The financial turmoil in Alabama’s prepaid college tuition program has created the first issue of the 2010 governor’s race, with four potential candidates directly involved and others weighing in.

For politicians aspiring to Alabama’s top office, it’s an unexpected opportunity to attack a rival or to emerge as an insightful leader by developing a solution to the financial shortfall.

Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University, said the more than 48,000 families participating in the prepaid tuition program are the kind of people who plan ahead, value education and likely vote regularly. For politicians, that’s a group not to be ignored.

“I think they underestimate how much wrath you can get out of those households,” he said Monday.

Brown and David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, said the tuition plan’s participants would be significant in a primary election.

That’s because candidates of the same party usually hold the same views on most major issues and have to emphasize their few differences. In their view, the tuition plan could be one of those important differences.

“It’s one of those issues that will have legs. People will still be talking about it next year when the election is decided,” Lanoue said.

Steve Haeberle, chairman of the government department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that depends on how long the economy takes to turn around. The quicker the turnaround, the smaller the issue, he said.

The Wallace-Folsom Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Plan allows parents to pay a fixed amount when a child is young. Their expectation is that the child will get four years of college tuition after graduating from high school. The expectation of the board that oversees the program is that investing the money will produce more than enough to cover rising tuition costs.

That worked fine until the stock market plunged. The program has lost nearly half of its assets since September 2007, and future liabilities are about double the assets.

The 10-member board that oversees the program will meet at 10 a.m. March 24 in Montgomery to try to figure out what to do about summer and fall tuition payments.

The board includes three state officials who say they are considering running for governor in 2010: State Treasurer Kay Ivey, a Republican who chairs the board; two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne, also a Republican; and Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., who was one of the creators of the program that bears his name.

The PACT board has been seeking help from Alabama’s colleges, and the first to announce assistance was Troy University.

Troy decided last week to waive any tuition increases for the next three years for its 600 students in the PACT Program. Troy’s decision was announced by Chancellor Jack Hawkins, who is among the Republicans considering running for governor in 2010.

Byrne announced Monday that he will recommend the State Board of Education waive tuition increases for three years for the 1,944 PACT participants attending two-year colleges.

Two announced candidates for governor have weighed in.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham has called for the Legislature to authorize a special audit to establish the program’s financial condition. Greenville businessman Tim James, a Republican candidate, said it was “the most irresponsible thing” for the board to put the majority of its investments in stocks.

A potential Republican candidate for governor, state Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa, called a news conference last week to urge the Legislature to work together for solutions.

“In a situation like this where you have so many candidates tied directly or indirectly to the program, it’s going to be politicized. It can’t help but be,” Lanoue said.

D’Linell Finley, a political scientist at Auburn University-Montgomery, said politicians aren’t going to stand out in voters’ minds by criticizing the program. Instead, he said voters will remember candidates who offer answers.

His recommendation to candidates: “You will look like a real leader by making the issue look as nonpolitical as possible while coming up with ways to help those families who contributed to the program.”