Apr 052009
Authors: Sean Reed

Things just keep getting worse for higher education in Colorado.

In case you didn’t get the memo, last week the Joint Budget Committee of the Colorado legislature unanimously approved a proposal to cut $300 million from the roughly $600 million in discretionary funds allocated to fund our already-starving higher education institutions.

In addition, the JBC suggested loosening the grip of the legislature on tuition rates by increasing the spending authority of higher ed from 6.5 percent to 9 percent,. However, they also stated that should institutions desire to increase beyond this threshold, they would still be allowed but would be on their own if increases put the institutions in jeopardy.

To make the move more politically feasible, the JBC pitched a pie-in-the-sky plan to soften the blow by dipping into a $700 million surplus in workers’ compensation funds. Under this plan, the net effect on dollars going to higher ed would be zero, despite the 50 percent cut in official discretionary funds.

Of course, there’s one major problem with this otherwise brilliant plan: The entity that holds the funds — Pinnacol Assurance — is not too amenable to having their coffers raided by the state to fuel universities and community colleges, according to the Denver Post.

The question of the day is whether Pinnacol, an organization created in 1915 as a state agency that has slowly evolved into a mostly independent quasi-government agency, really has much say in the matter.

Pinnacol’s Corporation Board has strongly asserted that they do. And unfortunately for higher ed, it looks like they’re right.

According to the Colorado Workers Compensation Act of 2007, the state has absolutely “no claim to or interest in” the funds in the Pinnacol Assurance fund, and, as such, “shall not borrow, appropriate, or direct payments from such revenues, moneys or assets for any purpose.”

Of course, there is always the option to change the law, and Senate Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, is pursuing this option.

His bill proposes the state reassert direct control over Pinnacol and its assets, and that the state be allowed the discretion to use the company’s funds for other programs.

This, of course, is a slippery slope that could compromise the mission that the state created the organization to pursue in the first place: to ensure that every worker in the state of Colorado have access to worker’s compensation in the case of injury.

In addition, it does nothing to solve the long-term problem that is funding for Colorado higher education. Instead, it is just another Band-Aid fix from Colorado politicians’ favorite tool for solving budget issues: creative fund shifts.

This tactic, of course, never truly solves any issue and too often creates new problems for other programs down the road.

And this is where we stand now.

If the Pinnacol plan works, higher ed advocates, at least for next year, need not panic. It’s the year after they’ll need to worry about.

There won’t always be a bailout fund for higher education, and when that day comes, we’re looking at deep cuts. And everyone’s going to feel the effects.

Most immediately, adjunct faculty and ancillary staff will start disappearing, as will low-income students dependent on aid programs offered by the university financed with state dollars. Advocacy programs and resource offices will decline. New facilities and infrastructure will halt.

As a result, Colorado will see fewer college graduates. Fewer college grads means fewer qualified leaders in the state economy (unless we import them), which hinders the state’s ability to remain competitive and grow.

We’ll feel these effects even sooner if the plan doesn’t work.

It would do Colorado leaders well to remember that an investment in higher ed is an investment in the future. The JBC is talking about cutting that investment in half and replacing the state’s share with a half-baked proposal that one JBC member predicts will result in years of court battles.

We need real solutions, not creative bookkeeping. It’s time for the JBC to get serious.

Editorials Editor Sean Reed is a senior political science major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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