General Assembly building

The General Assembly Building facing Capitol Square

A state senator spoke out Tuesday against what he said is “an obvious conflict of interest” as legislation intended to address the cost of higher education continues to stall in the General Assembly.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax City, objected when the Senate higher education subcommittee advanced a bill to the full committee with the understanding it then would be referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where a half-dozen other proposals related to tuition charges have died.

The Finance Committee is co-chaired by Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican from James City County who is on the faculty of the College of William & Mary.

“That’s an obvious conflict of interest if you have someone who’s an employee of an institution who is going to sit in judgment on all these tuition bills,” Petersen said after the meeting.

Norment did not return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Senate-approved legislation to provide consumer protection to student borrowers was rejected by the House Commerce and Labor Committee. The legislation (SB1053), sponsored by Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, was known as the Student Loan Borrowers’ Bill of Rights.

The bill would have required that student loan providers doing business in Virginia be licensed by the State Corporation Commission’s Bureau of Financial Institutions.

It was supported by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration and by student advocacy groups, including Virginia21.

“Student debt is an issue that transcends politics and must be addressed,” Tim Cywinski, Virginia21 communications director, said by email after the vote. He said the group will “work with members from both parties to pass similar legislation next year.”

The bill before the Senate subcommittee, HB1410 by Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, would require that schools with out-of-state enrollment exceeding 30 percent use a portion of that tuition revenue to lower the cost for in-state students. W&M and the University of Virginia are the targets of the bill.

“I don’t know why it’s going to Finance,” Petersen objected when the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said the bill was headed to the Finance Committee.

“Well, it’s going to Finance when you start messing around with out-of-state numbers,” responded Saslaw, who said the General Assembly did not need to “micromanage” universities.

Saslaw also is a member of the Finance Committee, which last month tabled proposals that were intended to put limits on tuition and on the autonomy of governing boards. Among them was a proposal by Petersen (SB1379) that would have required a portion of budget surpluses to be used to reduce in-state tuition.

Also killed in Finance were several bills each by Sens. William R. DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach, and Glen H. Sturtevant Jr., R-Richmond, that they had promoted at a news conference at the start of the session.

“We haven’t had a single, substantive bill on tuition reform come to the floor — not one,” Petersen said. “Every single one goes to Senate Finance, and it dies.”

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