Tough pitch to redo Colorado’s governing document

 Higher Education in Crisis  Comments Off on Tough pitch to redo Colorado’s governing document
Jan 212010
 

By Aaron Hedge

Collegian Special Report

If CSU professor John Straayer could have any superpower, he would rewrite the Colorado Constitution.

day3_infographic1His edits would loosen the reins of widespread taxing and appropriations restrictions that tie lawmakers’ frustrated hands in bolstering public programs that are not mandated to grow, one of which is higher education.

“The voters would look back a decade from now … and say, ‘That was a stroke of genius, Straayer. Why didn’t we think of it earlier?’” the long-time political science expert said.

Addressing what he said are pervasive problems in the state’s loose restrictions on voter initiatives, he would revamp the elections system and restore a stronger representative government to the legislature.

“It would take care of the problem in higher education,” he said. “It would take care of the problems in transportation. It would ease the pressures we’re feeling in social services and human resources.”

If anything, though, it looks as if Colorado’s fiscal policy might get even more restrictive in the 2010 election.

Two constitutional amendments are on the ballot that, if implemented, will add to the state’s long train of measures that restrict lawmakers’ purview on taxing and authority on spending.

A rocky road to a constitutional convention

Prominent politicians who say a rewrite is the only way to right the state’s sinking financial ship have pitched the idea over the last half a decade.

But to do it, lawmakers would have to call an extended legislative session, delete the original document and spend months building an acceptable framework for a new one. It has no vehicle for implementation and few fans among the state’s conservative voters, who remain skeptical of such a complicated and risky move.

day3_graph2Joe Blake, the recently inaugurated chancellor of the CSU System, said a constitutional convention could open up the possibility for special interest groups to draft more bad policy –– or eliminate the policy that works well, like the state’s complex rules that govern water rights.

“There are those who would say, ‘Let’s redo the U.S. Constitution,’ and if you open that up, there would be people who would say, ‘Let’s get rid of Amendment No. 2 or Amendment No. 5,’” Blake said.

Straayer and Blake stand on separate sides of the political aisle, but one thing they agree on is that the powers of a government that relies more wholly on its lawmakers to properly draft legislation might have prevented Colorado’s dismal funding model.

The problem stems from a train of conflicting legislation, much of it in the form of voter initiatives, that requires lawmakers to spend a certain amount more on programs every year, while limiting their ability to raise money.

“Representative democracy has an enormous advantage,” Straayer said, “And that is when you run a bill in the legislature, it’s discussed in the context of existing law, and there is testimony, and there is an opportunity for adjustment.”

Alternative fixes, like extending temporary legislation that lifts caps on taxing and spending authorities, are vague in scope and uncertain in effect, leaving those trying to repair the problem in legislative despair.

Options pending ‘comprehensive’ dialogue with Colorado community

Addressing the higher education crisis, many say, is all about sparking a dialogue between the higher education community and the state.

Higher education advocates, including CSU President Tony Frank, have led that conversation, hosting community forums across the state to stress to residents how pervasive the problem is in an effort to gain voter support for a solution.

“If we choose to privatize higher ed in Colorado, we shouldn’t do it accidentally,” Frank said in a phone interview last year. “We shouldn’t do it quietly.”

University officials have mentioned privatization as one of the hypothetical methods to finance higher education should the state decide to completely defund it, but many people intimate with the matter say that would be untenable.

day3_graph4It has been announced in meetings between school administrators and lawmakers over the last few months that officials are working to draft a legislative measure that would mandate a solid funding stream for higher education.

Much like the requirements that ensure funding for K-12 education and the Department of Wildlife, legislation to fund colleges and universities here would protect it from dying.

Voting trends, however, illustrate a philosophy that does not favor higher education.

While Colorado has one of the most educated workforces in the country, most of the people with a college degree in the state did not get it here, a conundrum that lawmakers call the “Colorado Paradox.”

But, as many voters haven’t benefited directly from higher education programming, Straayer and Blake said the state’s colleges and universities enjoy the smallest amount of community support among Colorado’s public programs.

“… higher ed is not a protected species. It does not have a place where Coloradans have said, ‘We want to make this a permanent investment,’” Blake said.

So, in addition to the campaign for voter support, the university announced earlier this semester that, for the last four years, it has been conducting a capital campaign that aims to bring in $500 million to the programs across the institution.

University officials have long alluded to the initiative, which is the first in CSU’s history.

Frank told a Collegian reporter in the fall semester of 2008 that CSU was looking at beginning a capital campaign, but said it was too early to determine whether or not a program of that sort is feasible, but since the announcement of the campaign, donation revenues have poured in by the millions of dollars to the delight of administrators and public relations officials.

These grassroots measures to maintain funding for CSU have been hugely successful, according to press releases from the institution.

It is unlikely, however, that the campaign will keep the institution whole because revenues generated by it won’t be enough to fill the huge hole, said Ray Chamberlain, who served as president of CSU from 1969 to 1979.

“The $500 million goal … is a tremendous asset to this institution, but it isn’t, by its nature, a pool that can support everything else when all of these others don’t continue in a steady, stable manner,” Chamberlain said in an interview last week.

More than a dozen policy experts interviewed for this report maintain that Colorado needs a statewide fix.

Should the state do anything?

Blake doesn’t agree with the idea of completely rewriting the Constitution because of the political implications that ride alongside the concept.

“We have built a whole civic, physical infrastructure around water law,” he said. “Do you think those who would stand to be at risk would say, ‘Let’s call a constitutional convention and open that up?’”

And, he said, there aren’t any simple alternatives.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could just rush to judgment and get some kind of magic twanger out there and say, ‘Here we go. Here’s what the voters want’ and make it happen?” he asked.

The magic twanger has been on the minds of state lawmakers and university officials in the form of a legislative measure that would mandate funding for higher education for a long time.

On the other end of the ticket, though, there are those who say the problem is not one that needs a legislative fix.

Douglas Bruce, a long-time player in Colorado politics who drafted the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, said in a phone interview with the Collegian that tuition is increasing by the devastating percentages it is because the state government has too much control over it.

“Unfortunately, the government has a monopoly on higher education,” he said, adding that only a free-market model would work.

Bruce represents a fringe philosophy in the state’s Republican Party that views government as a social evil that acts as a parasite on Colorado’s working class.

day3_graph5“I don’t see why a guy flipping burgers for $7-an-hour should pay for a person to go to a four-year college for six years and have fun,” said Bruce, who was appointed to an empty House seat in 2007 after a stint on the El Paso County Commission.

But some conservative lawmakers take a more moderate stance on the issue, saying that, while a high level of fiscal responsibility is dictated by the fundamentals of American political philosophy, the state has a responsibility to fund its public programs adequately.

Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson, a Fort Collins Republican who formerly sat on Colorado’s appropriations committee, has long advocated for policy that would allow state lawmakers more taxing and spending authority, which he said could fix higher education, among other state programs.

Al White, a Republican from Hayden who now sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said in an interview before the semester started that the current economic model for higher education in Colorado leaves it “out of the mix and in the yogurt.”

Both White and Johnson have advocated for a constitutional convention.

Nonetheless, Straayer’s dream of rewriting the constitution will probably never come true, but, he said, something must be done soon.

“Now it’s … our turn to step up to the plate and say, ‘Let’s fix this. Let’s fix this,” so that in the year … 2050 we don’t look back and say, ‘What happened?’” he said.

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

With connections, Frank, Blake take initiative

 Higher Education in Crisis  Comments Off on With connections, Frank, Blake take initiative
Jan 212010
 

By Aaron Hedge

The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Tony Frank rushed into a meeting in a conference room in the Lory Student Center on a snowy morning in early October, late to welcome Colorado’s top higher education committee to campus for a stern discussion on funding for colleges and universities.

He had been in his office chipping away at the mountain of administrative duties typical of the top position at an institution as large as CSU. It took an instant message from one of his No. 2s to remind him of the task.

After apologizing profusely for his tardiness, for which he might have been docked grade points in many rooms on campus, the normally punctual and articulate CSU president praised the board for its work to stress the importance of higher education in the state.

That day, the group, Colorado’s Commission on Higher Education, decided to request lawmakers to limit tuition increases for in-state residents to 9 percent.

Their effort runs parallel to campaigns by leadership at Colorado’s colleges and universities to maintain the state’s competitive edge in educating its people.

Frank’s lateness could indicate that he simply lost track of the time. Or it might represent the mounting pressures the self-described “optimist” is feeling in his struggle to stress CSU’s relevance to the state.

After accepting leadership at CSU in November 2008, Frank inherited one of the most difficult responsibilities in Colorado: to keep the state’s second largest educational institution afloat in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

If the hill wasn’t steep enough, the challenge is set against the backdrop of one of the longest, most convoluted state constitutions in the nation, which requires lawmakers to increase funding for state programs every year, while mandating that they cannot raise more money in taxes.

While the task is a tall one, many remain confident in Frank and his boss, CSU Chancellor Joe Blake, in keeping CSU at the forefront of the discussion.

Blake a long-time advocate for higher ed

A conference room on the 24th floor of the Denver skyscraper overlooks the west end of the city’s skyline. Between the buildings, the horizon was accented by the Rocky Mountains, many of them shrouded by a thick veil of fog one day early last semester.

But sitting in a swivel chair in the room, Joe Blake wasn’t concerned with the dismal weather he could see through the picture window.

His thoughts extended farther and in different directions than the westerly view of the conference room window allowed him to see.

They centered around two smaller communities –– one an hour north, one an hour and a half south –– and the force driving the economies in both regions: the CSU System.

His task to keep it healthy is one he and others say is the biggest challenge in the state.

“The worst thing that could happen to the average citizen right now is to step on an elevator in a 40-story building with someone from higher education ‘cause mostly what we do is whine,” he said. “… On Floor 2, you’ve turned it off, and on Floor 40, you’ve run through your grocery list.”

He says key players in funding for higher education have a responsibility to put their noses to the grindstone and figure out a solution to the higher education funding crisis.

Some doubt whether public institutions in the state will last the decade.

But with the faith of a large number of university community members backing him, Blake says he and President Frank can carry out the tall task.

John Straayer, a prominent political science professor, said Blake’s strong connections with Colorado’s business community create a framework for close ties with key players in funding higher education.

A history in responsible conservatism

Blake’s brand of fiscal conservatism doesn’t seem to fit with the neoconservative GOP view that the less financial power the government has, the better.

After he graduated law school at CU-Boulder in the ‘60s, he began working for a prominent U.S. senator named Gordon Allott.

Allott, a Colorado Republican who sat on the Senate appropriations committee, Blake said, taught him what happens when the reigns of fiscal policy are taken from the hands of legislators –– Blake said it’s not pretty.

And Colorado’s financial situation, which allows its officials an amount of lawmaking power that is among the smallest in the nation, seems to corroborate Blake’s philosophy.

To become a nationally competitive higher education force, the state would have to allocate nearly $850 million more to the program each year for the next decade than it is able to.

After his work with Allott, Blake went on to become a potent member of Colorado’s political and business communities as chair of the state’s transportation board and, later, the same for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In the months leading up to Colorado’s failing financial health in 2005, Blake jumped onboard with a statewide campaign for a voter initiative that would end up lifting the lid on taxing and allocation restrictions mandated by an overt state policy called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The legislation, called Referendum C, became the impetus to finance the higher education system here until 2011, when many expect the measure to die.

Since then, he has positioned himself prominently among Colorado’s business community, most recently with President Frank, to add steam to statewide campaigns for voter support for higher education.

The latest effort is a grassroots, CSU System-led initiative called CSU Advocates, which provides a forum for students and alumni groups to send electronic messages to state legislators and donate funds to the university.

And Frank, who has worked for CSU for more than two decades and was inaugurated last semester as president with a huge amount of statewide and university support, has been working with Rotary clubs and community organizations.

He has pressed flesh with prominent Fort Collins residents and worked with state lawmakers to ensure that CSU maintains its clout as the state’s land grant university.

He told Denver’s Comcast Newsmakers’ Beverly Weaver in an interview over the winter break that an educated populace is an essential resource for the state.

Many confident in Frank and Blake

Amid a chorus of complaints from media about the secrecy of the discussion, CSU’s governing board nominated Blake as the sole candidate for system chancellor in a closed-door meeting in the spring of 2009.

The CSU-Fort Collins president previously held the chancellor position, carrying out the duties of both offices. After former president Larry Penley resigned suddenly Nov. 5, 2008, the board decided to split the positions, citing a need for a closer relationship with the state and the dual roles formerly held by the university’s top executive.

Many said the split was a bad decision, posing the question: Why should the university pay two salaries for one position?

But after the controversy surrounding the pick died down over the summer, the broad university community threw heavy support behind Blake and Frank’s efforts to raise voter awareness for the floundering state of higher education.

“They’re doing the right thing,” Straayer said in an interview earlier this semester.

Few options and little fanfare exist among Colorado’s notoriously conservative voting community for supporting a state program that doesn’t benefit the entire state.

“Higher ed is not a protected species,” he said. “It does not have a place where Coloradans have said “we want to make this a permanent investment.”

Options include gaining voter support for possible tax increases and a complete constitutional rewrite, neither of which are likely to happen.

And the latter, Blake said, is a complex move wrought with risk and one he doesn’t support.

But if something isn’t done soon, university officials and policy experts say, CSU will continue to suffer from drastic cuts and sharply spiking tuition rates, resulting in reduced access for Colorado’s voters.

“You’d be a smaller institution that doesn’t have as much quality, and prices would increase,” Frank said in an interview. “ … Paying more and getting less is not a good business model.”

The answer, Blake says, will be found through elbow grease and tireless efforts. It’s far from easy, and that’s why his and Frank’s campaign is so important.

But, Blake added, as the fog outside the conference room window started to clear, “We’re not cowed. We are not back in the back of the cave, waiting for sunlight.”

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

Higher Education in Crisis – Part 2

 Higher Education in Crisis  Comments Off on Higher Education in Crisis – Part 2
Jan 202010
 

By Aaron Hedge
Collegian Special Report

Josh Pasley followed Matt McClain down a sepia-tone hallway in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital with an 8-foot utilities ladder under his right arm last semester. McClain carried a nearly empty box of Panasonic single tube light bulbs.

It’s a largely thankless job.

“We walk in and change the lights,” Pasley said, walking down the corridor. “No one says anything, and we walk out.”

Pasley and McClain came into the Facilities Services North building on the corner of East Drive and Pitkin Street every morning, processed their tube replacement orders and navigated the halls of many of CSU’s buildings to illuminate the darkened light bays.

The two students –– Pasley, a senior health and human sciences major at CSU, and McClain, an undeclared sophomore at Front Range Community College –– said the work allows them flexibility in planning their schedules around classes. They have been doing this for three years.

But at the end of October, the department they worked under became yet another victim of CSU’s crippling budget cuts that have state lawmakers and university administrators wringing their frustrated financial hands over how to fix a number of pervasive budget woes.

Facilities Management sustained a $1.8 million budget slash announced by the university in the middle of the semester. For zoning maintenance –– which, in addition to changing light bulbs across campus, maintained the university’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems –– it was lights out.

Earl Thomas, the director of the program, learned of the cut from an August 21 e-mail from human resources saying, “The shop will be disbanded and these duties will be dispersed throughout other trades shops, but the frequency of maintenance will be reduced with priority given to critical equipment.”

The reduced frequency of maintenance, department employees said, will lead to drafty classrooms and deteriorating equipment.

“In the future, I think that there will be big problems with these buildings,” said Shona Pischer, who had worked in the department changing HVAC filters for 12 years. “It may not show now, but it’ll show.”

CSU braces for more cuts

A note in the fifth slide of a PowerPoint budget projection that CSU President Tony Frank presented to faculty near the end of last semester reads: “Not So Good.”

It sits above a line graph illustrating a dramatic decline in federal stimulus and state educational and general funding for CSU –– $90 million, or almost 10 percent of its overall $850 million budget, over the next two years.

day2_graph1The pessimism conveyed in that note certainly isn’t characteristic for Frank, whose presentations usually contain a degree of ironic optimism.

The second bullet point in the seventh slide reads:

“Many of the choices we would need to consider to emerge financially viable from such a fiscal crisis might, in a variety of ways, be harmful to parts of our university community –– but our primary responsibility would be to emerge with a financially viable university that maintained as much quality as possible in our academic programs.”

Experts of Colorado’s financial crisis say the state faces an incredible challenge in untangling its complex and conflicting fiscal policy to ensure that many public programs, including higher education, survive.

day2_graph2The troubling decline in public funding reflects a national trend of states beginning to defund their colleges and universities.

In the last two years, states cut 6.8 percent, a total of $1.3 billion, from their higher education budgets, according to a newly released study from Grapevine, which has published a national report on tax funding for higher education for the last five decades.

The same report says Colorado cut more than 9 percent of its higher education budget. And while that number is far smaller than in some states –– South Dakota cut more than 22 percent –– Colorado is frequently ranked at the bottom of the barrel in national studies in terms of funding for its colleges and universities.

How bad is it?

Front Range Community College is facing a bizarre conundrum. Its constituency is growing by leaps and bounds, but the school itself might soon be extinct.

Amid a chorus of budget cut announcements from the governor’s office, FRCC lost a huge portion of its public funding over the summer when its $22 million budget was reduced to $16 million.

Andy Dorsey, the man who leads the college, says the cuts might just bleed his campus to the point of no return, despite ample interest in its programs.

As state lawmakers are gearing up for the rest of the legislative session to cope with a $2 billion budget shortfall, and higher education is one of the only pieces lawmakers are allowed to reduce, the cuts are a pervasive problem for institutions statewide.

“That scares me,” Dorsey said, “and I think it should scare the citizens of Colorado because the longer economic competitiveness of the state is clearly at risk if we’re not able to provide opportunities for folks.”

Federal stimulus dollars are filling the hole for now, but no one can see past the haze of fiscal year 2011, when that money runs out.

Dorsey said if the financial clouds don’t lift within the next five years, his budget will dwindle to unsustainable lows, as will finances for many of the state’s colleges and universities.

“I have no good crystal ball that says how much of that is at risk, but it’s not hard for me to imagine Front Range going from $22 million in state funding to $10 million, $11 million in state funds,” he said in an interview.

So for now, the college is eliminating redundant programs and asking its employees to work longer hours for the same amount of pay to streamline its budget and accommodate the growing student population.

Front Range is not the only school anticipating 2011, which lawmakers are calling “the cliff.”

Bracing for more crippling cuts, which have been announced almost quarterly over the last year, colleges and universities across the state, including big brothers CSU and CU-Boulder, are working to streamline their budgets and cut any unnecessary bureaucracy. The larger institutions have even proposed partial privatization.

But university and student government officials have said since the discussions began that a privatized CSU would be untenable as it would become far less accessible to the Colorado community, which goes against its land grant mission.

“We’re not going to become privatized,” said CSU Interim Provost Rick Miranda in a phone interview. “That’s just not going to happen.”

day2_graph3Long-time CSU political science professor John Straayer, who specializes in state and local government, warned last semester that, if nothing is done soon, it’s unclear how long higher education in Colorado will last.

“You’ve got 5-year-old kids. Do you want colleges and universities for them when they get out of high school?” Straayer said. “Because if you don’t do something, they’re not gonna be here.”

But the picture painted for the next few years by state administration is not pretty.

This year, announcements of program cuts have poured regularly from Gov. Bill Ritter’s office and trickled down to the CSU community in the form of e-mail messages from Frank, telling students what they could mean for the university.

Last year, the state announced devastating cuts to many programs almost quarterly. The first slashed more than $1.45 billion from the state’s general fund, a pool of taxpayer cash. Three subsequent shortfalls have brought that total to more than $2 billion.

Ritter, who has quickly lost favor among voters for a number of controversial budget decisions he has made in recent months, told Colorado in his final state of the state address at the beginning of the year that lawmakers would have to continue making “unpopular” decisions.

Along with cuts to state spending and small programs, the slashes mean a $377 million shortfall in this year’s $706 million general fund budget for higher education.

Originally, legislators intended to use federal stimulus dollars to bridge the gap until summer 2012, but those funds will now be gone in 2011, and when that happens, the state may have to approve still larger tuition increases.

Experts call it being “squeezed out” of the state’s financial pie, which is happening to the state’s programs that are not mandated to grow. The problem stems from a long line of conflicting laws that require lawmakers to give more spending authority to some programs from a budget with a fixed size.

Streamlining the institutions

University and college officials are left scrambling to find a balance between access and affordability, and global and national competitiveness.

They are also looking for alternative funding streams, which could include ramping up ongoing capital initiatives and focusing on bringing in research dollars, which typically can’t be spent directly on the academic colleges and university operating expenses.

At the same time, they are telling individual departments to brace for devastating cuts.

Small, non-academic programs at CSU are feeling the sting of having to move forward with smaller workforces and leaner operating budgets.

Human resources officials say the university is trying to maintain spots for all of its employees.
The employees in the zoning maintenance department that closed last semester were dispersed to other programs. Pasley and McClain kept changing lights under the brand of another department.

Pischer and the six other full-time employees –– some who feed families from meager salaries that, in that department, average about $20,000 annually –– were also relocated.

Pischer and Becky Harvey, the first two women to work in zoning maintenance and long-time coworkers and friends, now have job security in custodial, cleaning dormitories.

day2_graph4Dan Davey, who had helped Pischer and Harvey maintain the campus’ complex fan rooms that house CSU’s HVAC filter systems, now works on new building projects for the department’s “revenue crew.”

But Facilities Management at CSU alone let go of 50 employees this year, said Brian Chase, the director of the department.

And Facilities Management is not alone. Every department here was told to brace for a possible 17 percent cut over the next two years.

Frank said the administration would field the biggest percentage of the cuts, which he anticipated to be about 5 percent on average in each department after extensive conversations with state and university finance officials last week.

The university will hold a public forum to discuss every program’s budget, during which the deans of each school and the directors of each department will present preliminary budgets, which will include the cuts, on Jan. 27.

More forums will be held throughout the semester.

Six of CSU’s eight college deans did not return calls last week from the Collegian requesting predictions of what they would cut. The other two deferred comment to the university’s public relations department, saying it was too early to comment on the fiscal year 2011 budget.

Brad Bohlander, the university’s chief spokesperson said officials can only comment on generalities for now.

But anecdotes from more than a dozen policy experts interviewed for this report saying higher education will not last much longer indicate that the cuts could mean a much different model for public institutions.

And an ongoing trend of steeply declining revenues and appropriations corroborate those sentiments.

Officials confident in state leadership despite dismal outlook

If the economy doesn’t improve significantly and Colorado doesn’t find a way to offer more funding for colleges and universities, state lawmakers and experts say institutions will grow even leaner.

“Unless we get some relief next spring, it’s gonna be a very difficult year for higher education, I’m afraid,” said state Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.

But the top two employees for the CSU System remain faithful that the state will not ignore the higher education system and have expressed confidence in its leadership’s ability to trailblaze a new funding path.

“We are not cowed,” said recently inaugurated CSU System Chancellor Joe Blake, a longtime advocate for higher education funding initiatives in Colorado. “We’re not back in the back of the cave waiting for sunlight.”

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

Jan 192010
 

By Aaron Hedge
Collegian Special Report

One rabbit. Two rabbit. Three rabbit. Colorado’s bailouts keep coming from some magic hat. But as the state delves deeper into a bank of short-term fixes, will a fourth rabbit save the day?

No one really knows. But one thing is certain: There is no magic solution to Colorado’s funding woes. Especially for those paying for a college education.

day1_graph1It’s the big story everywhere­ –– the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. It’s threatening jobs and businesses nationally and throwing states into their own fiscal frenzy.

But for well-educated Colorado, where a perfect storm has been brewing for decades, this latest recession could be the nail in higher education’s coffin.

Less than a week after the Colorado legislative session began, talk is rampant at the Capitol about how the state’s reported $2 billion shortfall will be addressed, and many say higher education is first in line to be cut.

As state money dwindles, students and their families are picking up more of the tab; some worry they may pick up all of it soon.

In the last decade alone, tuition at CSU has more than doubled from $2,408 to $4,822. Fees and book costs have skyrocketed.
But the story behind this situation is confusing and largely untold.

Nearly three decades ago, the winding road began when the state implemented a narrow piece of legislation that limits lawmakers’ ability to increase property taxes ­–– the bread and butter for most states, especially in tough financial times.

From there, implementation of a large number of seemingly harmless but effectively conflicting voter initiatives created a state constitution that, for the last decade, has depended on unexpected financial bailouts for many state programs, including higher education.

The first bailout came at the beginning of the new millennium after an economic recession threatened to cripple the state’s colleges and universities, not to mention its transportation, health care and corrections systems.

Then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, was forced to pull cash from one-time state funds to bridge the gap.

“There was a rabbit in the hat,” said John Straayer, a 43-year political science professor who specializes in state and local government. “They found it.”

Straayer said the initial bailout, coupled with a 2005 relaxation of state revenue caps and a recent influx of federal stimulus dollars, fostered a philosophy among Colorado voters that keeps them assuming the magic hat is bottomless and the rabbits are endless.

But according to interviews with state lawmakers and university officials, that might not be the case.

Don Marostica, who was appointed the top financial officer in the state last year by Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, said after the stimulus money runs out in 2011, it’s unclear how long public higher education in Colorado will last.

Here’s how the state reached this point.

Winding toward the funding cliff

In the years leading up to 1982, states across the nation were implementing rules that restricted lawmakers’ ability to collect property taxes as the housing market boomed.

A number of conservative lawmakers in Colorado were feeling pressure from homeowners to do something about a sharp incline in property taxes as housing values increased along with a burgeoning economy.

The Gallagher Amendment was their fix.

It restricted the amount lawmakers could increase property taxes every year, while ensuring that the proportion of revenue coming from homeowners stayed significantly lower than that shouldered by the private business sector.

The result was that homeowners experienced a much lower tax burden than they would have otherwise.

“It worked. It worked very well,” said Wade Buchanan, the president of the Bell Policy Center, a non-profit organization that conducts research on Colorado policy, and one of the lawmakers who drafted the Gallagher Amendment.

Move forward nearly a decade to 1991, where lawmakers pass a statute called Arveschoug-Bird (R-ves-scow-bird). The statute restricted the amount lawmakers could increase spending authority to state programs to 6 percent every year.

One year later, looking to slow the increase in taxes across the board in the state, a prominent conservative El Paso County resident named Douglas Bruce drafted an overarching measure that would place an umbrella cap on all state taxes.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, requires legislators to gain voter approval for tax increases, while mandating that revenue hikes cannot exceed the increase in population plus inflation. It was another measure Buchanan said was hugely successful.

Since then, Colorado’s broad voting community –– a 2.5 million-person populace –– has had sole decision-making power over tax increases.

Over the rest of the decade, those three policies meshed perfectly with the robust economic growth of the period, resulting in an unusually high level of financial health.

Between 1997 and 2001, the TABOR law ramped up, mandating tax refunds that, during that time, totaled $3.2 billion.

In Tuesday's print edition of the Collegian, this graph incorrectly reported figures in the thousands instead of millions. The Collegian regrets this error.

In Tuesday's print edition of the Collegian, this graph incorrectly reported figures in the thousands instead of millions. The Collegian regrets this error.

But local property tax revenues, by edict of the Gallagher Amendment and TABOR, began to fall short at the turn of the millennium, depriving the K-12 education system of the necessary backing to support itself.

So in 2000, voters decided to mandate, through an initiative called Amendment 23, that funding should increase for K-12 education by at least the rate of inflation plus 1 percent for the following 10 years and at least by inflation after that.

Little did voters know, however, that just around the bend lay the devastating effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which, exacerbating what was already one of the most difficult times the United States has ever experienced, laid the track for a major economic downturn across the nation and in Colorado.

State mandate to balance budget

The obvious and only solution: Slash general fund allocations for state programs that are not mandated to grow –– including higher education.

“When revenues are limited … what are you gonna do?” Straayer asked. “Well, there are two areas that aren’t protected: Transportation’s not protected. Higher ed is not protected.”

Consequently, community colleges and other small institutions began sweating over possibly crippling budget cuts. Many doubted survival.

Lawmakers were forced to backfill college and university operating budgets from one-time state reserves, depleting them.

That was the first rabbit, and things slowly started to right themselves.

But it was merely a butterfly bandage on a gaping wound.

By fiscal year 2005, Colorado’s higher education budget was 21 percent smaller than it was in 2002, even though enrollment continued to increase, according to a 2009 Bell Policy Center report.

At CSU, freshman enrollment had grown by record numbers for two years under the direction of former university President Larry Penley.

But because of TABOR’s ratchet effect –– conservative fiscal policies compounded and tied legislator’s ability to bolster revenues –– Colorado was quickly falling far behind most other states in terms of funding for its colleges and universities.

So a number of voters and influential community members, including Joe Blake, who was inaugurated last semester as CSU’s sole chancellor, began rallying across the state for a measure that would quell the problem, at least temporarily.

Referendum C, which barely squeaked through the electorate at 52 percent to 48 percent in 2005, temporarily lifted TABOR’s lid, allowing the state appropriations committee to approve bigger budgets and spending authority for Colorado’s starving public programs.

That was the second rabbit, but it wasn’t enough either.

“Well, we weren’t OK,” Straayer said. “That was a time-out deal (from TABOR).”

And now, as the economy is in shambles, despite headlines and anecdotes in the nation’s largest newspapers suggesting that it is improving, federal bailout dollars are flowing into Colorado, intended, in part, to liquidate the higher education system.

That’s the third rabbit.

“So, this didn’t happen overnight,” Straayer said. “This happened incrementally, and hence, your tuition goes up and up and up.”

Where do we go now?

Voting trends seem to indicate that Colorado expects another rabbit.

But more than a dozen lawmakers and policy experts interviewed for this report say the temporary fixes, which they call “Band-Aids,” are just that: Temporary.

And the solution most likely to work –– a comprehensive rewrite of the Colorado Constitution –– is not likely to happen as voter support for such a complicated move is thin, the experts say.

If something isn’t done very soon, however, colleges and universities will start to die off.

“We’re a lot closer to that than a lot of people acknowledge,” Buchanan said.

Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at tips@collegian.com.

First Ph.D recipient a state policy artifact

 Higher Education in Crisis  Comments Off on First Ph.D recipient a state policy artifact
Jan 192010
 

ChamberlainBy Aaron Hedge
The Rocky Mountain Collegian

In the 1960s, Ray Chamberlain played a small role in a proposed initiative to intentionally cover the Arctic ice cap in black soot and divert arctic rivers to slow what scientists were saying was a troubling trend of global cooling.

Scientists had for years predicted that the farming season would grow shorter, resulting in famine, and the world would slip into a minor ice age.

The idea behind the project was that the black soot would draw more sunlight, melting the polar ice cap, which, as evidenced since by an overwhelming number of scientific projects there, is now diminishing at an alarming rate.

With the newest trends in climate change being quite the opposite from those of that time, Chamberlain, who led the CSU System through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, says if such drastic measures had been approved, the world would be in much worse shape than it is now.

“It has probably taken at least a decade to begin to assess that it probably was a mistake,” said Chamberlain, 80, last week in a conference room in CSU’s Administration Building. “Obviously, the uncertainties were so huge that nothing was done, fortunately.”

The idea that plans that seem good at one point might have disastrous implications down the road doesn’t just apply to scientific community. Policy measures that have been implemented in Colorado since Chamberlain’s long tenure as a CSU professor and administrator have created what many say is an unhealthy political climate here.

Good intentions and unintended consequences

A black and white photograph in a book that documents the entire history of CSU until the mid 1970s shows Chamberlain as a graduate student working with two men in tweed suits. It’s not obvious in the image precisely what they are doing, but Chamberlain, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into belted trousers, is pointing energetically at something.

Since then, it’s clear that his active life has taken a toll.

His hands are cracked and weathered by decades of wilderness expeditions from the Arctic to the Equator. The flesh on his neck is a little looser than it used to be. The edges of his eyelids are red.

But somehow, he doesn’t look tired. His grayish blue eyes are clear and intelligent. His style of speech is slow and refined from working on more than 100 advisory committees for various projects, some with Nobel Prize winners.

His work on the large number of scientific and political initiatives has taught him many things, but one of the most important is that when uncertainty looms, restraint may be the best mode of action.

Some of the people he frequently conversed with for these activities thought and rethought paths to success.

That hasn’t been the general mode of operations, though, for the state of Colorado over the last three decades.

During Chamberlain’s leadership at CSU, Colorado was a middle-of-road state in terms of its taxing policies and funding allocations for its public programs.
“We were not a runaway tax and spend state,” said CSU political science professor John Straayer in a recent interview.

But since Chamberlain left the president’s office in 1979, Colorado’s constitution has become a bit of a mess.

A number of constitutional amendments and statutory rules have been implemented, some requiring state leaders to generate less taxes and others requiring the same people to spend more taxes. And in the two economic downturns of the last decade, the state has become increasingly hampered in funding its public programs.

It’s quite the pickle. You might say that, much like the black carbon would have melted the Arctic, the conflicting policy initiatives have melted Colorado’s ability to fund itself.

“We need to modernize our constitution and remove the conflicts in it as well as remove some of things that restrict the capacity of the legislature to make decision in an appropriate manner given the circumstances of the time,” Chamberlain said.

Regardless of what would have happened in alternative scenarios, Chamberlain, a long-time advocate for state programs that are not mandated to grow like transportation and higher education, says the state is stuck in the thick of the conundrum, and it may be a long walk out.

CSU System chancellor Joe Blake, Pueblo president Joe Garcia and Fort Collins President Tony Frank, along with the entire higher education community in Colorado, face a steep uphill battle in winning the hearts of the voters, but many, including Chamberlain, remain confident in them.

But as the interview in the Administration Building conference room wound down, he stressed the leadership in the CSU System is top-notch.

“I really believe that … Joe Blake, Joe Garcia and Tony (Frank) that these two campuses making up Colorado State University … constitute a leadership that we’re very, very fortunate to have,” he said.

Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at tips@collegian.com.