Colorado colleges and universities are bracing for further budget cuts as Gov. Bill Ritter’s office seeks permission from the federal government to reduce higher-education funding without forfeiting hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars.
Ritter said Monday that the waiver is a precaution meant to give him more options as the state budget gap widens – not a guarantee of additional cuts to the state’s share of higher-education budgets.
Even so, school leaders still smarting from the $150 million cut by lawmakers during the legislative session worry that additional reductions would hurt their service to students.
A memo from the governor’s budget office discusses taking about $80 million more from colleges in the next two years.
“We’re going to attempt to get that waiver so we can have flexibility,” Ritter said Monday. “Everything’s on the table. We’re really going to go through (suggested budget cuts) with a fine-tooth comb.”
Federal strings attached to $760 million in education stimulus money require states to keep their K-12 and higher-education budgets at or above their 2005-06 levels.
The waiver would allow Colorado to cut K-12 funding to below the 2005-06 levels, but a spokesman for the governor said there is no intent to do so.
The state sent $555 million to colleges and universities in 2005-06.
Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State College, said his institution is already stuck at those funding levels while serving 17 percent more students than the school had that year.
He estimates that Metro’s share of an additional $80 million cut could drop its per-pupil state funding to 1986-87 levels, depending on how cuts are implemented.
“That’s pretty dramatic,” Jordan said. “I don’t think that was the feds’ intent. It hits us and the community colleges particularly hard.”
The state is looking to close a nearly $400 million budget gap in the 2009-10 fiscal year and has asked state agencies to suggest ways to cut 10 percent from their budgets.
Departments were required to submit their suggestions by Monday.
Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, said the suggestions would not be made public under the Colorado Open Records Act while the governor’s office reviews them.
Ritter discussed the waiver Monday, the same day he was appointed to lead the National Governors Association’s committee on education.
Dreyer said because of constitutional budget requirements, higher education is often a target for cuts.
“What we have said since last fall is that we’re going to do whatever we can to protect education from preschool all the way up to college,” Dreyer said.