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Environmental bill would gut ABOR, restructure university governance

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The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR), the governing body for NAU, ASU and UA, could be restructured if a representative from Oro Valley, Arizona, has his way.

House Bill 2203, sponsored by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, would completely restructure ABOR to give more power to the governor and members of the state legislature. Members of ABOR are currently selected by the governor, but the bill would allow the governor to be on the board along with the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the majority and minority leaders of both chambers.

Environmental bill would gut ABOR, restructure university governance

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s speaking at the 2014 Republican victory party in Phoenix Nov. 4, 2014.

But the main thrust of the bill would be an installment of boards unique to each university that would inherit the powers currently delegated to ABOR.

NAU would have its own board similar to ABOR that would become its own governing body and set policy for the university. For example, instead of ABOR, the NAU board would set President Rita Cheng’s salary and take on the duty of reporting the university’s progress to the governor.

The board would consist of four “business representatives” and three “academic representatives” to govern the university.

“What we are seeking to do with this is gain closer business management over the universities,” said Finchem. “With all due respect to the existing structure, I was told that we have something on the order of a $44.5 billion franchise when we talk about the university system as a whole.”

HB 2203 was originally an environmental bill. Despite sweeping definition and redefinition of how Arizona’s universities are to be governed, the bill is titled, “Wildland fuel loads; watershed protection.”

Because of this, the bill and Finchem’s ideas for ABOR were heard March 19, not by the Education Committee, but by the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, a committee that does not typically oversee bills like this. The committee members did not have many questions for Finchem, specifically regarding his changes for ABOR, and the bill is now fast-tracked to be read in the chambers.

“We are the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee. I do not understand why we’re hearing an education committee [bill],” said Jamescita Peshlakai, a Democrat on the committee. “I know how important this bill is and how much it will have a direct impact on all of us.”

ABOR President Eileen Klein said in a release she opposes the bill and its restructuring of the board.

Klein spoke at the committee meeting hearing HB 2203, and had to explain the special position ABOR is in as an arm of the executive branch given broad powers by the legislature through statute.

“It’s a very different portfolio of responsibility than just a traditional policy-setting board or just a regulatory board,” Klein said.

Klein urged committee board members to keep in mind three things: redesigning ABOR is a big task, local boards could result in one university dominating and she fears the local boards could become a “revolving door.”

“What we’re striving for, I think, is the proper balance between presidents who can drive the success of their institutions, but that you have public accountability,” Klein said during the committee meeting.

Klein said three separate boards would only exacerbate government waste and bureaucracy, and the universities under the current iteration of ABOR have made great strides in economic impact and students' success.

“Arizona would be a loser in this scenario,” Klein said.

But challenging the attorney general’s lawsuit and HB 2203 might be some of Klein’s last acts as president. On March 26, she announced that she will be retiring from her position in June.

The bill passed 5-3 by the committee March 19.

Finchem’s proposal comes in the wake of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s ongoing lawsuit against ABOR for overstepping its authority on fees and tuition. The September 2017 lawsuit alleges that ABOR’s policy setting has been unconstitutional.

“ABOR unlawfully charges students who must attend part-time or online significantly more than actual cost, and ABOR requires students to pay for things other than instruction — such as athletic, recreation, technology, and health fees — to access instruction,” read one section of the lawsuit.

Brnovich’s claims that ABOR is stepping outside its bounds is reflected by some Arizona lawmakers. Many legislators want to return tuition-setting to the legislature, and in December 2017 the attorney general said he agrees the legislature has near-unrestricted authority to set tuition.

“On behalf of the Arizona Board of Regents, we are always open to discussions to improve university efficiency, accountability and oversight. The radical changes proposed in HB 2203 are not in the best interest of students, families or the state of Arizona,” said Klein.

Sen. Judy Burges, a Republican on the committee, was skeptical of ABOR’s tuition increases that are primed to be finalized and voted on later this month. Klein explained the tuition increase situation to Burges and cited NAU's and UA’s tuition guarantees for undergraduates as a way the board and the universities are helping students to cope with the debt Burges is concerned about.

“I think I’m the only retired educator who’s taught elementary, high school, community college and university, so I think I analyze the whole thing more critically and with greater depth,” said Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, a committee Democrat. “The failure to provide adequate resources does not fall on the Arizona Board of Regents; it falls on this body, which has cut university spending drastically, and has caused the legislature to fail miserably in the constitutional mandate to make university as near to free as possible.”