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Tuition battle continues, Attorney General has no legal right to question policies

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX — Attorney General Mark Brnovich has no legal right to challenge the tuition the Board of Regents sets for the state’s three universities; or even question the policies used to come up with those numbers, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Connie Contes decided Thursday.

In a brief ruling, the judge accepted arguments by attorneys for the board that Brnovich can file lawsuits only when he has specific legislative authority or permission of the governor. In this case, Contes concluded, he has neither.

More to the point, he is unlikely to get the go-ahead from Gov. Doug Ducey to challenge the tuition hikes.

Ducey won office in 2014 at least in part on blaming Democrat Fred DuVal for increasing the cost of

going to state-run universities. But the governor told Capitol Media Services last year he believes “our universities and accessible and affordable.’’ And Ducey at the time also criticized the attorney general for seeking to resolve the issue by filing suit -- and for doing so without first talking to the regents.

“I’m not a big fan of lawsuits,’’ Ducey said.

Brnovich reacted angrily, not so much to the judge’s ruling but to the Board of Regents for challenging his right to sue.

“It’s disappointing that the regents and the universities didn’t want to allow us to have our day in court to argue about skyrocketing tuition costs,’’ he said.

The attorney general conceded that he and his lawyers have used similar tactics to have lawsuits against the state thrown out on technical grounds rather than having to litigate the merits of the claim. But Brnovich said that’s “completely different’’ because in those cases his office is trying to protect the state and its taxpayers against claims.

Brnovich said he is weighing his options, including an appeal.

“If the attorney general doesn’t have the authority to bring this lawsuit, then who does?’’ he asked.

Central to the claim is a constitutional provision that instruction at state universities be “as nearly free as possible.’’ Brnovich contends that universities are violating that, citing not just the actual tuition but also various mandatory fees for things like athletics.

His lawsuit is built on numbers. In filing suit, he said tuition and mandatory fees at Arizona State University are 315 percent higher than they were in the 2002-2003 school year. That figure is 325 percent for Northern Arizona University, and 370 percent for the main campus of the University of Arizona.

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