Arizona Appeals Court Rejects AG's University Tuition Lawsuit

By Lauren Gilger, Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 9:08am
Updated: Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 2:13pm
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Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Mark Brnovich

LAUREN GILGER: Attorney general Mark Brnovich's effort to sue the state universities over tuition rates has been denied by the state court of appeals. But this may not be the last word on the matter. The panel of judges determined the state law limits when the attorney general can sue to when the office has specific legal authority or the governor's blessing. Gov. Doug Ducey has not been supportive of Brnovich's suit over tuition rates, which the attorney general contends are unconstitutionally high. Brnovich's spokesman Ryan Anderson sharply criticized the court's opinion.

RYAN ANDERSON: The idea that the attorney general has to go to the governor to get permission to sign off on every piece of litigation — that's just not right. And I don't think that Arizonans, when they're electing an independent officer such as the attorney general, are anticipating an AG that has to go grovel or ask for permission for every lawsuit.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Brnovich is expected to appeal the decision to the state supreme court, where a decision would not only get at this question of his legal authority but also what the state constitution means when it says a university education in Arizona "shall be nearly as free as possible."

ANDERSON: I think we're asking important questions about the constitutional obligations of the public higher education system in the state, and we think the people of Arizona deserve a public debate on the merits of whether the rates that ABOR are setting are in fact constitutional.

GILGER: Ron Shoopman sits on the State Board of Regents named in Berna ventures lawsuit and he joins us now to talk about the court's decision and what to expect next. Good morning, Ron.

RON SHOOPMAN: Good morning.

GILGER: So tell us first just what you make of this. Does this surprise you at all?

SHOOPMAN: No, I'm not surprised. We certainly appreciate the ruling of the appellate court in this matter and it would be our hope that this would be the end of it. This has been a long, drawn-out affair that addresses something that the Board of Regents works on every day. And that is to ensure that we provide access and affordability to especially the students of Arizona.

GOLDSTEIN: As we just heard though it's probably not the end of it. We expect the attorney general to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Without getting too far in the weeds here, how would you characterize this? The attorney general has been very outspoken about this. The Board of Regents has responded over and over again. Do you think there's any merit to any of this point — maybe not even on the legal basis but philosophically — because there was concern in the past that tuition rates did go up in response, in part, to the state cutting back on university funding so dramatically?

SHOOPMAN: It's a complex issue based on the fact that those cuts did have a significant impact in tuition rates. But if you look at the performance of our three universities over the last decade-plus, our graduation rates are up sharply. We are providing a higher quality education at a very affordable price. And several magazines recently, in the last week or two, have named Arizona universities as some of the most affordable and effective universities in the country. We think about ways to make it more affordable. We are working to provide access through new and creative programs. We hold costs down. It's a topic that comes up day in and day out with each of our presidents of the universities. And we're very proud of the work that we're doing. We believe that the time and energy being spent on this issue in this way could be much better spent if the attorney general would walk across the street, sit down with us and let us take him through the issue — through the case issue by issue. We are convinced that we are are working extraordinarily hard and that our universities have responded very well.

GILGER: Ron, give us a sense of the pressures that you face in terms of trying to keep prices down. I mean, when you look at what the constitution of the state says, that at the education here shall be nearly as free as possible, how do you do that with market pressures and the growth that we've also seen in the universities here?

GOLDSTEIN: We've worked very hard to ensure that every Arizona student who has the desire and has taken the right courses and at least has a B average can go to an Arizona university. We have created internal scholarship capability that means that even the child from the poorest of our communities can attend a university. Many of them attend for free. And we do this by putting the people of Arizona first and thinking about what's best for this state in the future.

GILGER: That's Ron Shoopman with the State Board of Regents. Thank you for joining us, Ron.

SHOOPMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

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