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Thursday, September 6, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW wins legal round over student energy fees

Seattle Times staff reporter

The University of Washington yesterday won the first step in its legal defense of a controversial energy surcharge — a fee some students say amounts to a second round of tuition increases — when a judge denied an injunction request filed by a student suing to block the fee.

King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf ruled against UW student Jasmin Weaver, saying she did not show that she couldn't afford the $3-per-credit fee or that she would be harmed by it, thus failing a key test in an injunction proceeding.

The decision means the university can impose the fee when it sends out fall tuition bills in early October. The fall quarter begins Oct. 1.

But Alsdorf questioned the UW Board of Regents' authority to impose the fee, calling their action "legally problematic" because the university historically has budgeted energy costs as an operating expense covered by tuition.

"If you call energy costs a special fee, is there anything you can't call a special fee?" Alsdorf asked. "It would seem you could pull out anything that has traditionally been an operating fee and make it a special fee."

Alsdorf asked both sides to take a closer look at what the Legislature meant by the word "all" when they defined the difference between operating fees and special fees.

Operating fees are another name for tuition, which under the statute is "charged all students" and is controlled by the Legislature; state colleges and universities can impose special fees, such as laboratory fees for chemicals, on select groups of students without legislative approval.

The UW maintains its energy fee is akin to a lab fee because it is temporary and applies only to students who take on-campus courses — about 85 percent of the university's enrollment.

The energy fee would not apply to distance learning or independent-study courses that do not use a classroom or a laboratory.

Weaver, last year's student-government president, said she and her attorney would continue their efforts to stop the fee.

"I'm fortunate that I have financial support from my family," Weaver said. "But the reason I filed this lawsuit was for the thousands of students this fee will hurt."

Weaver filed the lawsuit and injunction request against the Board of Regents last month after it approved the fee to combat soaring energy costs. The fee drew the ire of students who already are facing a 6.7 percent tuition increase, a 10 percent increase in housing costs and a proposed library fee.

The energy fee comes to about $135 a year for typical full-time students on the Seattle campus, on top of the $225 those students will be paying in extra tuition. UW Tacoma and Bothell students will pay $1-per-credit energy fees.

The lawsuit argues that the regents are illegally circumventing the Legislature, which, under state law, sets a cap on tuition at the state's colleges and universities.

Weaver's attorney, James Johanson, said he likely would not appeal yesterday's decision but would proceed with a motion for summary judgment — judgment rendered without a trail — before fall tuition bills are due.

Johanson also hoped to bring more students into the case, particularly students from middle-income families who don't qualify for financial aid but would be most harmed by the fee.

Johanson accused the university — by parsing a small percentage of students who would not be subject to the fee — of exploiting a legal loophole that needed to be closed by the Legislature.

He also said legislators had in mind a more specific list of uses, such as gymnasium fees, when they created the special-fees clause. The Legislature already considered energy costs when it set the tuition cap earlier this year, Johanson said.

He also argues that the fee is unfair because it is imposed by the credit — not the kilowatt. In other words, it does not distinguish between students in classrooms and labs that do and don't use high amounts of electricity.

But UW attorney Paul Triesch said the laws allowing special fees were intended to give the governing boards of state colleges and universities latitude to cover extraordinary expenses such as the soaring power bills that have hit the state's colleges and universities in the past year.

By putting the special-fee component into the law, "the legislature envisioned the universities encountering unexpected costs," Triesch told the judge.

Earlier this year, the UW unsuccessfully sought extra money from the Legislature for soaring energy costs, which this year are expected to top $20 million.

The costs are largely responsible for the university's $13.6 million budget deficit for 2002. The energy fee would cut the deficit by $4.5 million.

The energy crunch has hit all of the state's public colleges and universities, but, so far, no others are considering similar fees.

Ray Rivera can be reached at 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

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