Higher ed braces for cuts

By Jason Kosena

The fiscal state of Colorado’s higher education system is bad and getting worse.

The system was already on unstable financial footing after the 2002 recession forced lawmakers to substantially cut funding to the state’s 28 college and university campuses, and it’s up for another $30 million slashing this year.

File photo by Cory Knight/The Colorado Statesman

Secretary of State Bernie Buescher speaks to lawmakers during his senate confirmation hearings on Monday.

But wait. There’s more. Gov. Bill Ritter and the Joint Budget Committee are combing the books to find enough cuts to make up for a $600 million budget shortfall this year and another expected $385 million shortfall next year — and some of those cuts also are bound to be felt by higher education.

Because of interlocking provisions of the state Constitution that require increases to K-12 spending each year while prohibiting the state from increasing the General Fund by more than 6 percent each year, higher education is often the easiest target when lawmakers are desperate to find cuts. Ritter’s proposed budget plan, introduced to the JBC Friday, calls for $201.1 million in spending and program cuts — including $30 million from higher education — as well as $289.7 million in transfers from cash funds and $134.1 million from the state’s reserves.

Although $30 million more was allocated to higher education this year than in 2008, Ritter — who has made boosting the state’s higher education budget a priority since taking office — deplores the need for such large cuts. In fact, Ritter’s latest round of proposed cuts would wipe out nearly a quarter of the $120 million in additional funding he has carved out for higher education in recent years.

As a result, Colorado families and students could face a significant rise in tuition and fees.

State appropriations for some colleges — including the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado — are just beginning to rise above dips from Colorado’s previous recession. And, in order to keep up with rising costs, in recent years the state’s universities and colleges have resorted to other funding mechanisms — primarily tuition hikes.

Although the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and individual institutions lobby for certain tuition increases, all hikes ultimately must be approved by the Joint Budget Committee and signed off by the governor.

Between 2002 and 2005, funding for higher education was cut by nearly 22 percent, according to Joint Budget Committee data. At the same time, tuition rate rose by more than 30 percent — a trend that continued in subsequent years. In fact, since 2003, tuition at CSU has increased 52 percent and mandatory student fees have risen by more than 70 percent. Students at CU and UNC have witnessed similar increases.

“Higher education was hard hit in the last recession in the earlier part of the decade, and we have not quite climbed out of that hole. So to be hit again is painful, certainly,” said Ken McConnellougue, a spokesman for CU. “But we are going to do all that we can to maintain quality and affordability for Colorado and Coloradans as we move forward.”

McConnellogue said CU is working with the state’s other higher education institutions and the Joint Budget Committee to find ways to alleviate some of the fiscal constraints placed on the universities, allowing more flexibility in the funding of capital construction projects, among other budget items, without spending additional state dollars. The institutions are hoping to get a bill introduced in coming weeks that would pave the way for such changes.

Anticipating another recession, CSU officials led by interim president Tony Frank, already have made cuts, laying off vice presidents hired under former college president Larry Penley and instituting a hiring freeze to eliminate $1.5 million in administrative spending. In addition, Frank has asked all deans and vice presidents to reduce expenditures in ways that would have little impact on the classroom and the academic sectors.

“It is no surprise that the state of Colorado is anticipating major state revenue reductions, including significant cuts to higher education, as one of the few discretionary items left in the state budget,” said CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander. “The proposed $30 million in cuts is within the scenarios that Colorado State University has been preparing to address.

“As we continue to review and revise CSU’s potential budget-reduction scenarios, the university’s top priority is to keep cuts away from the academic and student-support side of the institution as much as possible. We’re also looking at various alternative strategies for reducing expenditures,” he continued. “Again, to the extent possible, we will be striving to keep that impact as far from our classrooms as we can, recognizing that our
greatest responsibility is to our students.”

Ritter and lawmakers will hammer out final details of budget cuts for this year during the upcoming weeks and then will focus on cutting the remaining $384 million in 2010 budget.