ALBANY -- Trustees of the State University of New York took a significant step Tuesday toward putting in place a five-year plan that would include gradual tuition increases instead of leaving the issue to the whims of lawmakers.

Trustees authorized SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher to negotiate a five-year plan with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators. A key provision is that tuition be kept in a "locked box," preventing lawmakers from undercutting tuition increases by sweeping other SUNY operational funds into the state's general fund during tough economic times. The tuition policy would apply only to New York residents.

Cuomo said the concept had "a lot of merit," but said he wanted to review it before making a commitment. But he also said that leaving tuition to the annual "political process" of the state budget has not served SUNY or students well.

"A political body doing this on a year-to-year basis tends not to do it well," the governor said.

In its resolution, SUNY trustees noted that the current process leads to wild tuition swings for students -- years of no increases followed by, for example, a 43 percent jump in 1991-92. The last increase occurred in 2009-10, when tuition was pushed to its current level ($4,970 for in-state residents, per semester).

At the same time, the Republican-led Senate continued to push for a separate measure that would give Stony Brook University and three other SUNY university centers more autonomy -- including the ability to set tuition. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) would like to include the "SUNY empowerment" plan in the state budget but acknowledged that it has garnered "not much" traction with the Democrat-led Assembly.

"My conference is obviously concerned about tuition" increases, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said.

Lawmakers are currently negotiating a spending plan, trying to adopt one in time for the April 1 start of the fiscal year. Cuomo has not proposed a tuition increase, but he has called for cutting the SUNY operations budget by about 10 percent, matching reductions he's outlined for most state agencies.

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