May 062007
 
Authors: Vimal Patel

Luke Ragland sat along a wall in a third-floor room of the Capitol building when he heard the news.

The CSU student listened as Sen. Andrew McElhany announced to about 15 Republican lawmakers that CSU wanted an amendment that would increase tuition by nearly half added to the state’s spending bill.

“My first reaction was, ‘this can’t be right,'” Ragland said. “Something was wrong. There’s no way it can be a 43 percent increase.”

Ragland was there that late March day for an internship through the political science department. But he was also director of Legislative Affairs for Associated Students of CSU.

He switched hats and went to work. He called ASCSU’s lobbyist. He then dialed President Jason Green. The student government decided it would take a stance against the increase.

The next day, Ragland skipped classes, put his life on hold and drove to Denver.

He had an amendment to battle.

Penley makes his move

The university wanted to close the so-called credit gap. CSU can only charge students for nine credits. Other Colorado colleges and universities are able to charge for up to 12.

This, CSU President Larry Penley said, was clearly unfair to CSU. And he was done talking.

He’d been talking for months, he would later write in an e-mail to students, but the funding inequities that plagued CSU persisted.

The amendment introduced by Sen. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat, at the behest of Penley would have given the university an additional $34 million in spending authority. The increase, of course, would have been paid for by students.

The gap would have been filled in one shot, at the cost of about an extra $577 per semester for each in-state student – less than the initial 43 percent increase version, but still close at 37 percent.

The amendment was added to the Long Bill, the state’s $17.8 billion spending bill.

Immediately, Penley and the amendment were denounced – by legislators and student leaders. The rage was hot, and it mostly centered not on the content of the amendment, but the way it was introduced.

“One of the norms in the legislature is you don’t surprise people,” said John Straayer, CSU political science professor.

Student leaders were upset because of a lack of input. Legislators were upset because they were kept out of the loop. And both were upset because of the last-minute attempt to, as they saw it, unfairly sneak through a dramatic funding measure.

“It was a surprise to me that that was coming,” said Sen. Steve Johnson, a Fort Collins Republican and member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, about the 11th hour add-on.

“We really had no input from CSU lobbyists during the budget process . I would have liked to have been a more effective advocate for CSU, but when I don’t hear from them it’s hard to do that.”

Bacon, the author of the amendment, defended the measure and its timing.

“You seize the moment,” he said. “I would not do anything different because any time I have an opportunity to help the fiscal health of CSU, I’m going to seize that opportunity.”

ASCSU counters

People – especially legislators and journalists – like personal accounts. Human tales bring to life stories the way facts and statistics can’t.

Ragland had one.

The Dolores native’s family owns a small business in southwestern Colorado. Like most students, he gets tuition assistance. And his sister will be attending CSU next year.

This wasn’t a tuition increase, the CSU administration’s lobbyists argued to legislators. They were right. Technically, it wasn’t. But Ragland saw the increase not in semantics, but in practical terms.

Whatever the increase is called, he said, the bottom line is his working-class family would be paying significantly more to fund his education. And a large part of his decision to attend CSU was cost.

“I kind of liked the idea of attending (Arizona State University) or other schools, but there was no way my family could afford that,” he said.

So armed with a personal account of a cash-strapped college student, his mission that day was to tell it to as many legislators that would listen.

He’d catch the lawmakers wherever he could. On their way to lunch. In their offices. He’d send his business card in with the Sergeant at Arms and request meetings that way.

“You’d be surprised how accessible the Colorado state legislature is,” he said, estimating he made his argument against the amendment to about 20 legislators.

“Legislators were receptive to (my) message because it was straightforward. Also, students were not consulted in any way, shape or form. Legislators were receptive to that, too.”

Defeated

The day of hard work paid off. The amendment was shot down in the Senate 18-15.

And some credit Ragland for the outcome.

Johnson said three senators personally told him it was Ragland’s explanation that helped them digest the issue.

“They told me that Luke’s explanation was clear and concise and helped explain the impact of the amendment,” he said. “CSU’s lobbyists were confusing people. Senators were telling me, ‘That CSU student explained to me in two minutes what those CSU lobbyists couldn’t.'”

Sen. Josh Penry, a Fruita Republican, even mentioned Ragland’s account at the Senate podium.

But on such a passionate issue, Ragland wasn’t viewed as a hero to all.

“I believe this is a failure by the governor and senate to acknowledge the value of higher education at CSU, to provide equitable funding with other institutions in the state and our peers, and to allow CSU the revenue authority to replace missing state funds,” wrote Robert Jones, chair of the CSU faculty council, in an internal e-mail to other council members.

“In their refusal to take the responsible approach to funding higher education, it appears that they have enlisted an anti-tuition sentiment in some students as their mouthpieces and excuses to the media.”

The only student lobbying in Denver against the amendment was Ragland, and he took offense at being called a mouthpiece.

“The reality is, the dialogue between me and legislators was unequivocally one way,” he said. “It was me giving them information. I was not approached by anyone.”

The day after the amendment was shot down, Penley’s office released a list of programs and services that would take a hit because of the defeat.

Some cutbacks, according to CSU, included a reduction in faculty salary increases by one percent, elimination of 100 planned new faculty positions and a reduction in the amount of assistance offered to low-income students.

Ragland called the list a scare tactic used to rally the community to the university’s side. He also added he found it curious that there were no slated cuts for administrators on that list.

Moving on

Last week, CSU proposed a tuition increase of 5 percent on in-state and out-of-state students. The university also proposed increasing the amount of credits it can charge full-time students for to 10. It’s expected to close the entire gap incrementally over three years, what many critics of the Long Bill amendment suggested.

Under the new proposal, in-state students would pay an extra $287 per semester. Out-of-state students would spend an additional $1,243.

Although not ideal, this level of increase would be acceptable, Ragland said.

“We were just happy they didn’t do it all at once because of the huge tuition costs associated with it,” he told the Collegian last week. “We’re absolutely not opposed to tuition increases in general. We think they should be responsible. Preliminarily, it looks appropriate.”

The current proposal won’t provide nearly as much funding as the failed Long Bill amendment would have, but it’s a start, student leaders said. And it’s one step away from the March debacle and toward reconciliation.

“Everybody was really mad at first, but like any other conflict, time will ease that,” Ragland said. “I think there’s some rebuilding that still needs to occur. I think there’s some allies that CSU had that may feel alienated because of this.”

Others, too, were optimistic about the future of CSU’s relationship with legislators.

“It cost us some goodwill and it cost us some friends, at least in the short run,” Straayer said.

“From everything I’ve heard down there, that’s indisputable – no matter what the story is here. But in the long run, these things have a way of fading away. Sometimes, people can have a hell of a fight, but that doesn’t mean they’re lifelong enemies.”

And if anything positive came from the fight, it’s that state funding of Colorado’s higher-education institutions, especially CSU, was in the spotlight.

“CSU was put in the forefront of every newspaper in the state,” Ragland said. “That’s a good thing. I would never suggest a tactic like this, but there are good things that came out of it, including more communication between students (and administration).”

A political education

Ragland’s all-day lobbying effort in Denver was an eye-opener. He learned about “the process behind the process,” and that lobbying’s a skillful art that isn’t all bad.

The 21-year-old doesn’t quite know why he likes politics as much as he does. His family wasn’t especially political, but for some reason, he’d find himself watching “Meet the Press” as a kid.

“I love the political process. I love studying it. I love being a part of it,” said Ragland, a political science major.

“I don’t know why. It’s just something I understand. It’s so hard to say what I’m going to do (for a career), but it seems like I’m always going to be drawn back to politics because that’s what I love.”

But his years of studying political science from textbooks and in the classroom didn’t quite prepare him for real-life politicking.

Ragland was instrumental in defeating the amendment that would have jacked-up tuition hundreds of dollars per semester for most students, and changing the very nature of the tuition picture for cash-strapped students.

But in the process, he changed and grew as well.

“I’ve learned more about the process that day than I did all four years studying political science,” he said.

“I never expected to be involved in something so controversial and I didn’t want to, either. It was something reluctant that we had to do. There were no winners that day.”

Staff writer Vimal Patel can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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By the Numbers: Higher-Education Funding in Colorado

$832 million: The average Colorado higher-education funding trails its peers.

12.3 percent: The increase in full-time equivalent (FTE) students in Colorado from 2001 to 2006.

14.1 percent: The decrease in state funding allocated per student, the second worst drop in the country.

$7,644: Colorado’s state support per student, the lowest among all 50 states.

The CSU amendment to the Long Bill: A primer

Who: Sen. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat, at the request of President Penley, authors a last-minute amendment to the Long Bill, a $17.8 billion state budget bill. The amendment is defeated in the Senate, 18-15.

What: The amendment would have given CSU an additional $34 million in spending authority to provide substantial financial aid to low-income students and fund various services and programs. The money would come from charging full-time students for 12 credit hours, which most Colorado colleges are allowed to, rather than the current nine CSU is able to.

Why: Penley said CSU is being treated unfairly by the state. The credit gap needs to be fixed, and the amendment was the only way to do it.

The Cost: Students would have eaten the cost. At $192.55 per credit, a three-credit leap would cost full-time students an extra $577.65 per semester.

The Criticism: Critics charge that the amendment, which would have closed the credit gap in one quick fix, was a giant leap that would have put extreme burden on cash-strapped students. Most criticism of Penley, however, was directed at Penley’s alleged lack of communication with lawmakers and students, along with the timing. As Gov. Ritter’s spokesman put it, the CSU president “tried to pull a fast one.”

The Opposition: Gov. Ritter, Sen. Johnson and several other politicians; the Colorado Dept. of Higher Education; Associated Students of CSU, especially its director of legislative affairs, Luke Ragland, who spent all day March 28 lobbying against the amendment. Some lawmakers credit the political science major with defeating the amendment.

The Support: President Larry Penley, several faculty members at CSU, Sen. Bob Bacon.

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