Voters should be given opportunity to remove higher education from TABOR

Filed under: Opinion |

By House Speaker Lola Spradley

In baseball, shrewd managers sometimes will call a “squeeze play” – when a batter bunts so that a runner on third base can run home and score – in order to win the ball game. But when it comes to the state budget, a squeeze play can spell big trouble.

Take higher education, which finds itself caught in a squeeze play between two contradictory constitutional amendments: Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in spending for K-12 education, and TABOR, which sets revenue and spending limits.

As a result of being caught in this squeeze play, funding for Colorado’s colleges and universities was cut by more than $170 million during the last two years. Because higher education, which accounts for 10 percent of the overall state budget but is the largest discretionary category, the legislature had no choice about cutting higher education in balancing the budget to reflect record-level revenue shortfalls.

Because of the interplay between Amendment 23 and TABOR, State funding for higher education will continue to be squeezed even as the economy recovers. In fact, Colorado University President Betsy Hoffman told legislators in December that, unless something is done, state support for higher ed will drop 88 percent between now and 2009 – effectively drying up state money for our colleges and universities.

No one wants to see this happen. Currently there are just over 200,000 students attending our two-year and four-year colleges and universities, of which approximately 90 percent are in-state students.

To be sure, our public universities, colleges and community colleges are one of our greatest assets. They provide the education that will enable our children and grandchildren to find a good job in an ever-competitive world. They provide our businesses with a skilled and qualified workforce. And they help drive our economy by giving existing businesses reason to stay in Colorado and expand, as well as encouraging out-of-state companies to relocate here.

Thus, what to do about funding for higher education is one of the most challenging issues facing the state legislature this year.

I have introduced a referendum which would give much-needed flexibility to higher education by taking any public college or university, on a case-by-case basis, out from under the tuition cap imposed by TABOR. This would be accomplished by giving the legislature authority to designate any higher education institution as a unique “enterprise fund.” Such designation would exempt such schools from the tuition limits of TABOR and give them the ability to issue bonds in order to meet future obligations.

Let me stress that any tuition hikes would continue to require approval by the General Assembly and the governor, as is the case now. Elected officials are naturally more responsive to the voters than appointed governing boards of the various colleges and universities. Thus, I see maintaining this legislative authority as a key “public-safety valve” that protects families from exponential tuition hikes.

Since HCR 1004 would amend the state constitution, it must be approved by two-thirds of each house in order for it to be on the ballot this November.

HCR 1004 is not a panacea for higher education. However, it is an important first step. Together with other proposals that the legislature is considering, HCR 1004 would help ensure a healthy foundation for continuing to fund our colleges and universities. At the very least, it would provide a couple years of breathing room.

We owe it to current as well as future students to provide a variety of public institutions where they can further their education. None of us wants to see our colleges and universities go broke, but that’s what will happen if we do not act now.