Jul 282009
Authors: Aaron Hedge

The top two employees of the CSU System are traveling the state and nation to convince notoriously tax-resistant Colorado voters to approve more money for the state’s cash-strapped colleges and universities.

The campaign — which looks not to bring answers, but raise awareness — is not unlike that for a policy in 2005 that temporarily alleviated some of the state’s funding woes, which placed Colorado at the bottom of the barrel for higher education funding in the nation.

The only difference is that, as CSU President Tony Frank says during stumps at Rotary clubs and in rural communities on the Western Slope, there isn’t a clear option for bringing in more money.

In the campaign, Frank and System Chancellor Joe Blake drive around the state and the country, rubbing elbows with voters to convince them to pay attention to the state’s students.

Giving pieces of what he called his “Rotarian speech,” which he gives at Rotary clubs, Frank told the Collegian in a phone interview from his truck, on the road between Grand Junction and Montrose, that Colorado must be careful in allocating money to higher education.

“If we choose to privatize higher ed in Colorado, we shouldn’t do it accidentally,” he said. “We shouldn’t do it quietly.”

Colorado policy leaves universities “in the yogurt”

The Colorado Constitution — which Steve Johnson, a former member of the state appropriations committee, called a “spider web” last year — is riddled with contradictory legislation that allocates a smaller piece of a dwindling financial pie to fund higher education.

In 2005, Blake, then chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, began a campaign to alleviate some of those woes. The campaign resulted in the passage of Referendum C, a policy that temporarily changed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which only allows a 6 percent tax increase every year unless voters approve a larger one.

Blake, who is now the chancellor of the CSU System and is spending time on the road with Frank to win voter approval for more cash flow to colleges and universities, said the issue needs the state’s utmost attention.

“It is a very, very complex and difficult problem to solve,” Blake said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Colorado has tried to implement a number of measures to fix the funding shortfall ranging from what lawmakers have called “Band-Aids,” — like extending Referendum C –/to more dramatic measures,/namely completely rewriting the Constitution.

The “Band-Aids” include:

A 2008 measure, which was killed in the election, that would have repealed a massive tax break for oil companies and reallocated the revenue to colleges and universities, and

2008 legislation that increased the betting limit for gamblers in the state and allocated the money to community colleges. It passed.

A rewrite of the Constitution, which then state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, proposed in 2003, is the only way to completely fix the problem, Johnson said last year.

No one in the House of Representatives or the Senate voted for White’s proposal.

But White, now a senator who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said the idea of a convention to revamp the document is riddled with uncertainty as, while the Constitution allows for a convention, no rules are in place to facilitate such a complicated legislative move.

“Until a lot of those mechanics are identified, it will be almost impossible,” White said in a phone interview Tuesday.

As for the measures that have been proposed, White said they either don’t pass, or they don’t address the entire issue.

In reference to Amendment 50, which sent money from Colorado’s casinos to its community colleges, he said: “It’s left the rest of higher education out of the mix and still in the yogurt.”

And Amendment 58, which would have imposed severance taxes on oil companies for more revenue for higher education, didn’t pass.

Voters unlikely to approve tax increase

As for options to bring in new revenue in the future, which include possible tax increases, politicians have said the Constitution leaves their hands tied.

“I’m dubious that the voters would be willing approve a tax increase,” White said.

Without a tax increase, he said, Colorado’s barrel of public money for higher education could be empty within the decade, depending on the economy, which will force tuition to spike even more than it has in the past. It has increased about 10 percent at CSU every year for the last five years.

If the state stops funding higher education, Frank said, CSU would have to downsize.

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

Frank said that, although the cost of education has not increased nearly as sharply as the tuition price tag, the cost is being shifted more and more onto the backs of students.

“If you’re the family paying that, it’s gone up dramatically,” Frank said.

In 2008 alone, tuition at CSU increased 16 percent.

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

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