Oct 312007
Authors: Aaron Hedge

State Sen. Steve Johnson (R-Fort Collins) criticized shortcomings in the Colorado state budget that affect higher education tuition at CSU’s student government meeting Wednesday night.

The state needs to rewrite the entire budget, not allow tuition hikes, Johnson said, to make improvements at colleges and universities.

A hot issue on the Colorado budget docket is Gov. Bill Ritter’s higher education proposal that GOP officials are saying doesn’t allocate sufficient funds to higher education institutions.

But Johnson said lawmakers have bigger fish to fry.

“That’s a very good question,” he said when asked what he thought about Ritter’s proposal. “But it’s like asking, ‘How was your room on the Titanic?’ . The government cannot keep up with the demands of the economy because of the way the TABOR limit is structured.”

TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, closed the gate that allowed excess taxes to flow to state programs and reallocated the money to the hands of taxpayers.

The most extreme measures-including referenda C and D in 2005-taken to fix the budget have done almost nothing to fix the state’s huge problems, he said.

“We’ve all lived within a bigger budget picture, and our state’s fiscal situation is not stable. Referendum C . I think it saved the state, and it’s the most significant thing I’ve been involved in, in the 12 years I’ve been a legislator,” Johnson said, “But it’s a Band-Aid.”

Last year, Colorado’s legislators voted to raise overall tuition 7 percent, but colleges and universities needed more. Johnson said the decision was not easy to vote on because the lawmakers knew schools needed more than 7 percent of what they already received.

“It’s a difficult vote for legislators because they know they’ve under-funded institutions of higher ed, and we all want health care and higher education,” he said. CSU raised tuition $287 this year-10 percent more than the 7 percent agreement with the legislature after heated debate over a proposal from university President Larry Penley to allow an increase of about $1,200 per year for in-state students.

And the current hikes still aren’t enough

“It isn’t enough for institutions to charge 16 percent more in tuition,” Johnson said.

But he said that legislators can’t ask much more from the students because that would also discourage parents from paying more taxes to fund higher education. If they see a huge tuition increase, like CSU’s 2007-08 hike, they won’t vote for a tax increase as well, Johnson said.

“We’re leaving the state with a huge problem in 2010 or 2011 that our state budget is unsustainable,” he said. “I mean we’ve got a 6 percent limitation on how much you can (hike taxes) a year, that’s whatever the inflation rate is.

“We have a revenue limit that limits that amount of revenue that comes into the state and it grossly underestimates the growing needs of the state,” he added.

And higher education is at the bottom of the priority list.

“Higher education gets the crumbs that are left, and that isn’t a good way to target something that’s so critical to the future of the economic development,” Johnson said. “We’re probably $800 million behind the peer institutions in other states, so do you think $2 million is enough? No, it isn’t.”

He said huge measures have to be taken to fix the budget before higher education gets better.

“Our constitution is a mess, it’s a spider web . you can’t unbuckle a strap on a straightjacket and expect to escape,” Johnson said.

Associate News Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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