Understanding the way the budget in the state of Colorado works is like understanding the U.S. tax code. There are confusing acronyms, constitutional stipulations and mathematical equations to boggle the mind.
But this year, all of these components play an even more important role in our lives, as the state faces a budget crisis. Higher education is caught in the middle, and many students are recognizing that it is important to grasp the major issues that face the higher education system in Colorado.
TABOR – The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights limits the amount of money that the state can spend each year. It is based on the previous year's expenditures with increases based on the population growth and inflation rate. The Denver-Boulder index (used to set to increase percentage) is very low this year, hovering around 1 percent. While this is good for consumers, it is bad for lawmakers, who will have less money to work with when creating the 2005-2006 fiscal year budget.
Amendment 23 – Because of low K-12 spending in previous decades, voters decided to pass this amendment, which requires increased funding for K-12 each year. This area of the state budget is the largest expenditure, taking up more than 60 percent of the state budget each year.
Public opinion – Certain programs such as road construction and correctional facilities are considered extremely important by taxpayers, making it difficult for lawmakers to cut these areas. Combine federal government requirements such as Medicare and Medicaid, it leaves very few areas for the cuts to come from. In many cases higher education is the area that has traditionally taken cuts in the past. This is due to the lack of protection for higher education and the sheer amount of money it receives each year, making it an easy target.
So what's in store for higher education this year as the newly elected legislature looks at the Colorado budget? In a recent address to the members of the Joint Budget Committee (a group of six legislators in charge of creating the Long Bill – the line-item budget bill), Gov. Owens made a few suggestions that would act as one-time fixes for next year.
One idea is to securitize all of the tobacco settlement dollars the state received. This is a possible fix to the budget because dollars from lawsuits are not counted toward the state's general fund, allowing lawmakers to get around TABOR. Securitization, however, will hurt the programs this money funds each year (such as cessation programs) because there will be no money in the future to fund them other than general funds, which are rapidly decreasing.
Another suggestion is to sell government buildings (such as the Clark Building) and then lease them back for use. Feelings are mixed about this idea, because it will help increase revenue but hurt the state in the long run.
Clearly, whatever idea state lawmakers find to fix the budget crisis this year, CSU and other schools will be facing budget cuts. We're looking at a state deficit of more than $250 million; it is basically a matter of how large those cuts will be. The only real fix that can be made has to come from the taxpayers. That's why the governor is suggesting a ballot measure for a one-time de-brucing. What this means is that Colorado taxpayers will vote whether or not to allow the state to keep the $460 million in surplus to help the budget crisis in future years.
As the director of legislative affairs in the Associated Students of CSU, it is my job to keep tabs on all of this to make sure that our interests as students are represented at the capital. It is your job as students to learn about the issues and let us know how we can help you.
Maria Bennett is a senior political science major and a member of the Associated Students of CSU. The Collegian will be running guest columns from ASCSU members intermittently throughout the spring semester.