Jan 182010
Authors: Seth Anthony

The current budget crunch that higher education faces in Colorado has been looming for a long time. Between 1982 and 1992, Colorado voters and the state legislature enacted an alphabet soup of rules –– Gallagher, Arveschoug-Bird and most notably TABOR –– restricting the growth of taxes collected and money spent by the state. Nearly 20 years have now passed since the last of these rules took effect.

Over those years, portions of the state budget have grown faster than others including K-12 education, which is required to grow by the state constitution, or Medicaid expenses, which are mandated by the federal government. These obligations have gradually squeezed out those parts of the state budget that aren’t protected, including higher education.

By 2011, if nothing changes, state and university leaders almost universally agree that colleges and universities like CSU face a “cliff” when state funding will drop precipitously.

Some have acted stunned that higher education now faces steep budget cuts, but this is more than a little disingenuous. For starters, those who wrote Colorado’s budgetary restrictions, such as Douglas Bruce, have made it clear that they don’t consider government funding of programs like higher education to be a priority. Their objective, as stated by ardent fiscal conservative Grover Norquist, is to shrink government to the point where they can “drown it in the bathtub.” 

They not only made their goals clear, but wrote their budget restrictions so that so that recessions would “ratchet down” state spending even further.

But, instead of acknowledging government revenue would fluctuate up and down over the decades because of economic booms and busts, Colorado’s budget planners usually looked only a few years ahead and used generally optimistic assumptions about economic growth.

While the exact year this crunch would hit couldn’t have been predicted when TABOR was passed in 1992, the fact that it would happen eventually could have been.

However, instead of planning well in advance of potential setbacks, some liberal lawmakers have been complicit in creating this current “crisis,” just waiting for these budgetary cliffs and the hard choices that come with them so that they can rally the public against the possibility of drastic cuts and convince them to lift the restrictions of TABOR for the long-term. That was done five years ago when voters passed Referendum C, and now lawmakers hope that voters will pull an even bigger rabbit out of the proverbial hat. 

There’s a good side to these restrictions, though. As the Collegian notes today, rules like TABOR mandated that Colorado couldn’t spend as much as some legislators might have wanted to, particularly during the rapid economic growth of the late 1990s. If Colorado’s budget had grown more then, the cuts made over the past decade would have needed to be even deeper. The massive tuition hikes recently enacted at California universities –– 32 percent higher in one year –– exemplify what can happen when unrestrained growth is followed by a deep recession. 

Even those who decry TABOR should be thankful that it’s made the budgetary “cliff” higher ed faces much shallower than it might have been. Furthermore, the past few years of economic difficulty have forced CSU to economize, especially in some wasteful segments of upper administration, and to look outside of governmental funding streams, beginning a campaign to raise more money from the private sector. Those moves have only strengthened CSU as a university.

The conversations Colorado needs to have about the future of higher education –– how can it be more responsive to the needs to students, less reliant on the fluctuations of state budgets -––should have started years ago. We would’ve had more options then.

Now, because those leading our state during the good years failed to plan for the possibility of lean years ahead, we face much tougher choices. At the very least, this crisis should teach us to learn from their mistakes. And for that lesson, we should also be thankful.

Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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