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.

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