Nov 042010
Authors: Kirsten Silveira

Gov. Bill Ritter revealed on Thursday Colorado’s Strategic Plan for Higher Education, which outlines a series of possible sales, income and property tax increases that would allow for the legislature to dedicate $1.5 billion to higher education, doubling the current allocation.

The plan, formed by a committee established last year to assess the funding situation for higher education, hopes to put two or more of the following tax increases into motion through a fall 2011 ballot referendum:

*Restore income and sales tax to 5 percent and 3 percent respectively, generating $445 million,

*Expand sales tax to specific services, generating $550 million,

*Implement 1 percent surcharge on extraction, generating $150 million,

*Implement a 4.0 mill levy –– or property tax –– statewide, generating $350 million, or

*Implement a 4.0 mill levy in counties where an institution of higher education is located, generating $240 million.

John Straayer, a CSU political science professor, said this is not an extreme measure and would essentially roll the state back to where it was a decade ago. Then, it was taking in more money than it was allowed to keep under the Tax Payers Bill of Rights, TABOR, and issuing various tax credits.

Back then, the legislature voted to drop the income tax from 5 percent to the still-intact 4.63 percent and the sales tax from 3 percent to the current 2.9 percent.

Voters, he said, get unnerved at the idea of raising taxes and becoming a high taxing and spending state, but –– looking at the economic climate when some of these proposed taxes were instated –– Colorado had a low tax and spend economy and a healthy and world-class higher education system.

Denver lawyer Jim Lyons and Dick Monfort, co-owner of the Colorado Rockies, headed the panel that constructed the strategic plan. The duo came up with what they coined “Degree Dividends” for in investment in higher education, which includes a vibrant economy, quality jobs and people qualified to fill them.

It hopes to halt Colorado’s higher education sector on its path to “accelerated erosion” and outlines four focus areas –– affordability, access, quality and accountability –– with emphasis on the need to have incoming college students more prepared for the workload, alternative degree paths and institutional accountability to boards like the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

For a measure like this to win the hearts of voters, Straayer said, the legislature will have to erase party lines, team up with the business and higher education sectors and start selling the measure now.

The strategic plan outlines that by 2018, 70 percent of all Colorado jobs will require higher education and training, with 43 percent of those being in management or areas like law. If the state fails to put aid into higher education, it’s likely the state will fall behind competition at a national level.

Since fiscal year 2000-2001, four-year state institutions saw a 24 percent increase in enrollment in a 27 percent decrease in per-student state funding. And since 1990 the state’s allocation for higher education has dropped from 20.3 percent to 9 percent of the state’s general fund, according to the plan presentation.

Also, since 1980 the state has curbed its financial investment into higher education by nearly 70 percent, according to the presentation. This means that 30 years ago taxpayers were giving $10.52 out of every $1,000 of personal income and are now giving only $3.20. The national average is $12.28 for every $1,000 of personal income.

This means students and their families are paying more because the state has dedicated less funding to the budget area. The idea of this proposal is to allocate more and focus on creating a qualified workforce of diverse individuals to fill positions –– keeping the state competitive.

Straayer said the state is in its current funding mess as a result of a series of legislative moves –– the Gallagher Amendment in 1988, Amendment 23 in 2000 and TABOR in 1992 –– that require the state to spend money on things like K-12 but keep it from creating sources of revenue. On top of that, the 2009 economic recession directed a blow at Colorado’s funding streams.

The proposal aims to link the funds to “measurable progress” in student retention, certificate and degree completion, education that meets the need of the workforce and better outcomes for low-and middle-income students.

This coalition, he added, is charged with making voters see the bigger picture: where the state will be for their children and grandchildren.

“This is not something you do six weeks before the elections,” Straayer said.

News Editor Kirsten Silveira can be reached at

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