DENVER – While CSU’s student government leaders listened at the state capitol Monday, Rep. Al White shared a startling revelation.
“I believe I am the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s child,” he said. Joking, of course.
Those comments are not usually found from a member of the Colorado State Legislature, but more than 30 ASCSU and SAHE students were treated to some lighthearted comedy from Rep. Al White during announcements on the House floor Monday.
Representing the annual “ASCSU Day at the Capitol,” the students were also recognized on the House floor and welcomed to the capitol to observe the legislature in action and hear from elected officials, including Governor Ritter’s Chief of Staff Jim Carpenter.
“I hope you take back to CSU the message that students are very important to Gov. Ritter,” said Carpenter. “There is a sense in the [legislature and executive] that higher ed has taken a big hit, and it’s time to re-prioritize to benefit everyone.”
Carpenter said it’s been a fast-paced month for Ritter’s administration.
“The only thing really in the news has been the fight over the union bill, but there has been much more than that going on, including higher education bills and issues,” said Carpenter. “We are trying hard to work to get state support on trying to redirect resources and working through budget cuts to get funding.”
Carpenter said Ritter’s administration sees higher education as a critical component of economic development for Colorado. He said that Ritter’s “mandate” to staff is that economic development is for everyone government department to work on, including partnership with higher education.
“We want to provide the jobs for you when you graduate if you choose to stay in the state. We want to train you to be qualified for those jobs and give you a great education through state schools so you can handle those kinds of positions,” said Carpenter.
Carpenter said Ritter considers higher education to be a non-partisan issue.
“Gov. Ritter is an advocate for higher education and it’s good to see that his administration values our opinions and partnership,” said ASCSU President Jason Green.
Sen. Steve Johnson and Reps. Fischer and Kefalas also spoke to the student group about legislative ideas for the future of higher education.
Johnson gave an overview of the constitutionally mandated portion of the Colorado general fund budget, with higher education taking only 9 percent, compared to 42 percent for K-12 funding. (See graph.)
Johnson said he thinks the state will have to look at the mandates in the constitution and reconsider how the general budget money is being spent.
He said part of the problem is that, “Colorado is one of the lowest taxed states – probably somewhere around 46 out of 50. We have low tax and fairly stringent rules on how we can spend the money we do have.
“Perception is the reality in politics and when we try to increase taxes in a very conservative state, voters are looking at the media for viewpoints on higher education. The media last year focused on Ward Churchill. Voters look at that and think, ‘Do I want to put more of my money there? No.'”
Johnson said it’s the legislature and students’ job to more effectively market and communicate why higher education is important and successful.
Rep. Kefalas said, “You [students] have the responsibility to market CSU and the education-the type of education-you believe you’re receiving.”
He said legislators take opinions from students very seriously when considering what bills to propose or vote for during the legislative session.
“If you want to impact and affect public policy, I can’t stress enough the importance of relationship building, which is ultimately why you’re here today” said Kefalas.
Johnson thanked CSU students for voting for Referendum C, a measure approved by Colorado voters that allows the government to collect and spend tax revenue above limits set in the state constitution.
“Ninety percent of students who turned out voted in favor of Referendum C,” Johnson said. “It only passed in the state with a 54 percent vote, so students had a large part in getting this passed.
“I don’t think you could responsibly know anything about the budget and be opposed to Referendum C. But now we’re treading water. Referendum C saved us, but it’s still very tight and we will have to face other challenges within the next four or five years when Referendum C goes away.”
Johnson said higher education is vulnerable because there is no constitutionally mandated spending for that category.
Carpenter also mentioned Ritter’s administration knows a significant emphasis on higher education is needed.
“We are very focused on that, transportation, healthcare and the economy,”
He also answered students’ questions about tuition increase, saying, “The governing board at CSU has a fair amount to say about tuition increases and there are caps on what the joint budget committee can give to subsidize that.
“There is always a major balance between charging the amount of money it takes to run an organization like CSU, while still ensuring it remains affordable to people from all economic backgrounds.”
Green said he was very pleased with the turn-out and with the legislators’ response to higher education issues.
“The Day at the Capitol is definitely a great tradition,” said Green. “It’s very important to be here consistently to talk about the budget and address the issues in higher education and the things that affect the student body. It’s good to see that the legislators have the same concerns and are aware of the issues affecting CSU.”
Staff writer Jenna Lynn Ellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.