About 200 students from nearly every college and university in Colorado responded en masse to the Joint Budget Committee’s recommendation Wednesday that $300 million be cut from the $600 million higher education budget.
“Our message today is simple,” said Adam Davenport, Mesa State College Associated Student Government president, in front of the crowd. “The de-funding of higher education is unacceptable.”
As they stood on the icy steps of the capitol, their footing as uncertain as the fiscal future their schools face, chants of “No way, we can’t pay” and “Save our schools” rose and fell from the students in front of media covering the rally.
“In all honesty, I’m not expecting anything from today except that we bring attention to our cause,” Quinn Girrens, vice president of the Associated Students of CSU, said. “That’s the main thing.”
Many students, including CSU-Pueblo senior Stephen Trujillo, traveled quite a distance to reach the capitol, boarding a school van with other Pueblo students at 5 a.m. to make his voice heard.
“People are just realizing that higher education is important in our state,” Trujillo said. “The state should be investing in youth. Now (students) have to work even harder to pay tuition and student fees.”
Nearly all skipped class.
“It won’t matter if I blow off these classes if they raise tuition 20 to 30 percent,” Matt Worthington, a CSU junior political science major, said. “I won’t be able to go to school.”
The chants continued even after Senators Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and Al White, R-Hayden, stepped out of their legislative session and spoke on behalf of the students.
“Take us out, we’ll vote you out! Take us out, we’ll vote you out!”
“Where’s the funding? WTF?”
But their purpose wasn’t merely shouting catchy phrases.
“If we have the ability to talk with as many legislators as we can, that’s great,” Girrens said.
“I have a tremendous obligation to listen to students,” said state Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, on the phone Sunday. Fischer’s district envelopes CSU’s main campus. “The fact is that Colorado is just short of revenue; we as a legislature still have an opportunity,” he said, explaining that the package of budget bills had just been introduced to the Senate Appropriations Committee and still has a ways to go before it reaches Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk.
As of Sunday evening, Fischer wasn’t sure of the legality of the option presented by the JBC to fill the hole with $500 million in excess funds from Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-governmental agency that provides Colorado businesses with workman’s compensation insurance.
Pinnacol officials, however, said that option is not viable.
“It’s really unconstitutional,” Pinnacol Assurance spokesperson John Hall said.
Calling it “illegal raiding” of Pinnacol’s funds, Hall said if the legislature votes to make the movement of that money legal, “Essentially, rates will have to go up and Colorado businesses will have to take the responsibility.”
Characterizing the plan presented by legislators as unfair, Hall said their position has created conflict.
“Legislature is trying to pit higher education against Pinnacol,” he said. “We sympathize with students … (but this) is really a ploy.”
If the legislature passes, Hall assuredly stated that “Pinnacol is ready to challenge.”
Interim CSU President Tony Frank is looking beyond the Pinnacol debate in search for answers.
“Whether it’s legal or not, it’s one time money,” Frank said.
Calling the back-filling “a bad long-term strategy,” Frank said that the state is “parking all of the cuts disproportionately on higher education.”
Frank’s prediction in light of the cuts is that schools will be forced to downsize and charge more.
“We’ll be a smaller institution that will be more expensive for our students,” he said.
In the search for blame, CSU Political Science Professor John Straayer said that legislation like the Gallagher Amendment, Amendment 23, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, along with a number of other measures and a growing list of tax credits have collectively “tightened the fiscal noose” on the state.
“It’s ironic as hell that things like higher education and transportation are the first to get cut, but they are needed the most for a business-friendly and vibrant economy,” Straayer said.
Hinting at an oft-mused future for institutions of higher education in Colorado, Straayer said, “We don’t have that much further to go to basically privatize this operation.”
Referring to some recent research, Straayer said that publicly-funded Colorado institutions have provided 64 degrees to 52 members of the 100-member general assembly, and 24 more have degrees from public institutions in other states.
“You would surely think that they would want to make similar opportunities available to young people,” he said.
Straayer said the Colorado attitude toward higher education needs adjustment.
“Maybe we need to pay a little more to ensure that our future generations are getting taken care of.”
The package of budget bills will spend a week in the Senate and next Monday will be handed over to the House of Representatives. It is expected that the Long Bill, Colorado’s budget, will make it to Gov. Ritter’s desk in about three weeks, but could take longer depending on the length of debate. July 1 starts Fiscal Year 2010 and is the final deadline for passage of the budget.
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