Apr 142009
Authors: Elyse Jarvis

Advised this week against slashing higher education funding, state legislators may be back to square one in looking to fill the $300 million budget shortfall still remaining after statewide reductions.

Today, the House Appropriations Committee will review a bill passed by the state Senate to funnel $500 million out of a surplus in state workers’ compensation funding, but instead of using the money to backfill cuts to higher education, Gov. Bill Ritter said Monday that the legislators must look beyond state institutions for sources from which to acquire funds.

Evan Dryer, a spokesperson for the governor, said specifics have not been set into place as to how legislators should seek to balance the state’s budget bill, the Long Bill, but options so far include dipping into state reserves and cash funds and continuing to look to Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-governmental insurance agency, to fill monetary holes.

“The governor has a commitment to keeping higher education acceptable and affordable,” Dryer said. “A $300 million cut would run counter to that.”

Colorado will not receive its scheduled $760 million in stimulus funding – set to go primarily to both K-12 and state schools – if it approves a budget granting higher education less money than it received in fiscal year 2005 to 2006, about $555 million.

Dryer said he anticipates the governor’s camp will undergo a budgeting exercise akin to the one it performed in January – from which a $100 million cut to higher education was recommended – with forthcoming suggestions to cater to the knowledge that Colorado’s shortfall now rests at $1.5 billion, up from the $1 billion projected months ago.

Colorado colleges will likely see a greater hit than the one forecasted in January, but Ritter intends to fill lost money with recovery act funds, Dryer said.

Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, said the deadline to make amendments to the Long Bill has been extended to 2 p.m. today, giving legislators time to look for “creative ways to balance the budget” before it is debated on the state House floor tomorrow.

“I think (Ritter’s) statement will weigh very heavily on the debate,” Kefalas said, noting that if Ritter chooses to veto the Long Bill if it passes in the House and is given to him for approval, it will be an unprecedented action.

John Straayer, a CSU political science professor, said Ritter’s statements are positive in that they signal the unwillingness of the executive branch to cut money solely from higher education.

“I know enough to know that it’s not over ’til it’s over, and I’m optimistic that higher education won’t take it in the shorts to the tune of another $300 million,” he said.

Straayer said he is “uncomfortable” thinking about what next year’s budget will look like, as surplus funding may not be available a year from now.

Interim CSU President Tony Frank has said if state institutions face the proposed $300 million cut in the end, CSU will need time to search for other solutions, including creating a ballot measure to increase public support for higher education to be voted on in this November’s election and to determine from which departments cuts may be made.

News Managing Editor Elyse Jarvis can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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