Recent controversies over how the University of Hawaii spends its money have prompted several bills that would make the university’s Board of Regents more accountable to the public. The Senate and House Higher Education committees on Tuesday passed some of them.

The university’s 15-member decision-making body has come under fire in recent months after the UH lost $200,000 in the Wonder Blunder and as salaries and tuition continue to spiral.

“The regents have been a joke for a long time,” said UH professor Noel Kent, who testified at both the Senate and House hearings Tuesday. “The way the university works right now? It doesn’t work. It’s dysfunctional. We need to change it at the bottom and at the top.”

The Board of Regents has absolute jurisdiction over personnel and the operation and management of the university. It has the power to approve salary figures and oversees tuition rates.

Some of the measures, SB 1386 and HB 1072, were introduced on behalf of the state Ethics Commission, which this year proposed that seven boards and commissions — including the Board of Regents — be required to file publicly available financial disclosure reports.

Another bill, HB 1070, would require the board to undergo annual training in the state’s Sunshine and open records laws.

The Senate Higher Education committee on Tuesday also considered several bills that would change how regents are selected, including abolishing the Regent Candidate Advisory Council and returning nominating powers to the governor. The measures include SB 452, SB 453 and SB 563.

The RCAC was established in 2006 after former Gov. Linda Lingle’s regent nominations were heavily criticized. Voters approved a constitutional amendment that required the governor to select board members from a list of candidates screened and proposed by the RCAC.

RCAC member Joseph Blanco testified in opposition to the bill that would repeal the council, emphasizing that its creation has since enhanced transparency and enabled top-notch board candidates.

“We screen members more thoroughly than the governor would be able to,” Blanco said. “These are public monies, we ask the hard questions. We make sure the record of regents reflects these concerns.”

UH graduate student Enjoli Alexander, member of the university’s student caucus, also testified in opposition to the bill, saying that students wouldn’t want the governor to have sole authority to choose regents.

“We don’t feel that it would be part of the democratic process for any one individual to make decisions about something that’s going to affect all our campuses,” she said, adding that the board lacks adequate student, faculty and staff representation.

But board members — along with top university administrators — have come under the microscope after the university lost $200,000 in the botched Stevie Wonder concert.

Lawmakers, including Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, have questioned why one former regent accepted thousands of dollars worth of tickets to university events. Senators have also demanded the board explain why some employees, particularly high-level administrators, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year while some students are struggling to afford tuition, which more than doubled in the last six years.

And tuition is still rising. University officials at an informational briefing Tuesday morning told lawmakers that tuition at UH-Manoa, for example, would jump to as much as $13,500 per semester by 2016. Current tuition is roughly $9,000 a semester.

Senate Ways and Means committee Chair David Ige joked that he paid just $112 a semester when he attended the UH in the late 1970s.

“The focus of these [informational briefings] is really to refocus the accountability and make them (the regents) understand that, since we delegated authority from the Legislature to regents to set tuition, we do expect that they would be concerned about the community’s ability to pay,” Ige said.

Some senators asked increasingly pointed questions at the briefing, demanding that university officials provide more information than what they included in slideshow presentations and data sheets. The same frustration was evident at a similar last briefing last Friday, when regents Eric Martinson and James Lee couldn’t explain why some university officials enjoy so many bonuses and free gifts.

“What are you doing about cutting the costs at the university so that you don’t have to increase the tuition and make the students pay for everything?” asked Sen. Sam Slom at the Tuesday briefing.

Seventy-two university employees make more than $200,000 each year.

University Provost Linda Johnsrud said that nearly all university employees have experienced 5 percent pay cuts since 2009. She also emphasized that salary and tuition costs are on par with other public research universities.

“We’re educating a whole lot more students, and we’re stretching our people about as far as they can be stretched,” she said.

Johnsrud reiterated that the rising costs are symptomatic of growing enrollment. Enrollment has grown by thousands of students each year between 2007 and 2010, university data shows. Enrollment for the fall 2012 semester reached a record high of 60,600.

But Sen. Laura Thielen said the enrollment doesn’t justify the escalating costs.

“I hear what you’re saying about the enrollment increasing, but that is not necessarily a linear increase in cost to the university,” she said. “If the proportion of tuition is going down on instructional costs what are those other things that are being funded with those tuition dollars?”

Sixteen percent of revenues from last year’s tuition went to financial aid this year. Revenue also goes toward faculty costs, classroom and facility improvements and campus-specific needs. But legislators urged university officials to specify what tuition monies are used for.

Senators also criticized university officials for asking the state to foot the bill on miscellaneous costs — expenses that would otherwise be paid for with student tuition, officials said.

“If we look at what proportion of tuition is going to instruction, that may used more as a bargaining chip with the Legislature over your general fund allocation,” Thielen said. “And until we see the whole picture as to what that else that tuition is being put towards, we don’t know whether your costs are under control or not.”

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