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AG Brnovich aims to end ‘skyrocketing’ tuition, continue seeking justice in 2nd term

Attorney General Mark Brnovich discusses some of his priorities on being sworn in Monday for a second term. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Attorney General Mark Brnovich discusses some of his priorities on being sworn in Monday for a second term. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX — Attorney General Mark Brnovich used his inaugural speech Monday to point up a key disagreement he has with Gov. Doug Ducey.

In listing the accomplishments of his first four years, Brnovich said his office is dedicated “to thwarting would-be terrorists, foiling con artists and bringing criminals to justice. And he said his agency has returned more than $60 million to Arizona consumers who did not get what they paid for.

But he also cited his goal “to stop skyrocketing tuition at our public universities.’’

That is a direct reference to the lawsuit that Brnovich filed in 2017 against the Arizona Board of Regents claiming that the tuition being charged to state residents violates a constitutional provision that instruction be “as nearly free as possible.’’

Only thing is, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Connie Contes last year tossed his case out of court.

She said the way Arizona law is worded, Brnovich can file lawsuits only when he has specific legislative authority or permission of the governor. And in this case, Contes said, he has neither.

Nor is he likely to get it.

After Brnovich sued, Ducey told Capitol Media Services that the state’s three universities are in compliance with the constitutional mandate, no matter what the attorney general contends.

“Our universities are accessible and affordable,’’ the governor said. And Ducey said while the universities had to make do when state aid was cut during the recession -- including by raising tuition -- he sees no legal problems with where tuition now stands.

Brnovich disagrees, citing what he computes to be tuition increases of more than 315 percent between 2002 and 2017 when he filed suit. He said those increases far outstrip inflation overall and even increases at other public universities.

More to the point, Brnovich charges that the regents set tuition not based on actual costs but on a variety of other factors, including what is charged elsewhere and access of students to financial aid. None of that, he contends, is constitutional.

But for the moment, those arguments are largely academic as Brnovich can’t make them until he gets Contes’ ruling overturned, legislative authority, or permission to sue from Ducey.

The governor, for his part, is unhappy with Brnovich for even going to court in the first place rather than trying to resolve the issue by speaking with the regents.

“I’m not a big fan of lawsuits,’’ the governor said after Brnovich sued. “When I can I like to reduce the number of lawsuits rather than expand them.’’

Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak would not comment after Brnovich’s inaugural speech Monday, instead citing the governor’s 2017 comments.

Brnovich, in his speech, said he sees his role as attorney general as defending the “rule of law.’’

“Many countries have beautifully written constitutions that frankly don’t mean anything,’’ he said.

“If you pull up the constitution of the Soviet Union it had all sorts of rights and privileges,’’ Brnovich said. “They didn’t mean anything.’’

And he said Venezuela had “wonderful laws, wonderful constitution’’ until a single dictator undermined all that.

Brnovich also took a slap at the degeneration of political discourse into “unbearable demonization of people who disagree with any group’s way of thinking.’’

He said it’s one thing to have “loud disagreements and vigorous debates.’’

“What we are losing at an alarming rate though, is what Sen. (Barry) Goldwater taught us about our ability to disagree without become disagreeable, to listen with an open mind to differing opinions, to be reasonable in our negotiations, and to give each other the respect that we deserve.’’

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