PHOENIX - A Senate panel dealt a serious and potentially fatal blow Tuesday to efforts by community colleges to offer four-year degrees.
On a 6-5 margin the Appropriations Committee killed the House-passed proposal, which would have let half of the campuses provide junior- and senior-level courses leading to baccalaureate degrees.
Most of the lawmakers sided with the pleas of university lobbyists who said the issue needs further study.
That argument drew derision from Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, who said it was nothing more than a tactic by the three state universities as well as the network of private colleges that fear competition from what she believes are more cost-efficient community colleges.
"This is like the third time we've heard this bill over probably the last 15 years," Knaperek said. "So it's not like this needs more study."
But her call for legislative action now wasn't helped by opposition from the Arizona Tax Research Association, a group that represents major taxpayers such as mines and utilities. These are the companies that would bear much of the burden if community colleges, which are largely dependent on local property taxes, had to raise more money to expand their offerings.
Knaperek said something has to give.
She said the universities are rapidly approaching their capacity, with the University of Arizona already having decided not to increase the number of students on its main campus.
"When there's 45,000 students that aren't going to be able to access higher education in the state, I would think it's the Legislature's responsibility to do something," she said.
The other alternative, Knaperek said, is boosting state funds for the universities. But she said it costs far more per student to educate someone at one of those three schools than at community colleges.
Knaperek said the scope of her legislation is limited. It would permit degrees only in law enforcement, fire services, health professions, teacher education and any "work-force-related" discipline where a degree is not offered by one of the universities.
John Kavanagh, director of the criminal justice program at Scottsdale Community College, backed that up. He complained that rural peace officers are unable to pursue baccalaureate degrees.
But Greg Fahey, lobbyist for the University of Arizona, said Knaperek is getting ahead of herself. He said study is needed to determine exactly where the gaps are and then determine the best way to plug them.