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TABOR reform could rescue higher ed

TABOR reform could rescue higher ed

Legislator hopes to push through bill to prevent further cuts
by Clayton Woullard
The Metropolitan
Volume 27, Issue 19, February 3, 2005

Legislators, college administrators and students have blamed TABOR, or the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, for the increasing lack of state funds for higher education.

That’s why House Speaker Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver is hoping legislation he is spear-heading will keep colleges and universities from slipping into the abyss of dwindling money from the state.

House Bill 11-94, or the Colorado Tax Cut and Economic Recovery Act, would slightly reform TABOR, an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that limits how much the government can spend. The bill, if approved by voters this November, would hold about $450 million in refunds that would go to Colorado taxpayers under TABOR. In exchange, the state income tax rate will be cut from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent, which Romanoff said would be the lowest in the nation.

Romanoff said the government needs the refund money to fund services, such as higher education, so it wonít have to cut them any more. The plan would allow the state to spend $2.7 billion more in the next five years than law currently allows.

Out of all state-funded services, higher education has been cut the most, Romanoff said, because there is nothing to protect it. For example, Amendment 23 mandates that the state provide 43 percent of the state budget to K-12 education, another quarter of the budget must go to Medicaid, another portion to the prison systems and other services.

“I think having so much of your budget on autopilot is a problem,” Romanoff said. “When you hit bad weather, autopilot can send you into a mountainside.”

Higher ed takes up about 8 or 9 percent of the state budget, which currently has a $250 million deficit.

There is some history one should know in understanding why Romanoff is proposing this bill. For about the past four years, the state has been in a recession, meaning there has been no extra money to give to Colorado taxpayers through TABOR. Now that the state has crawled out of that recession, about $450 million is mandated to go to taxpayers because of TABOR.

Take this analogy, Romanoff offered:

Say the economy goes south and a person’s employer must cut their salary. Then say the economy picks up again and the employer can provide the person’s old salary again. But because of some law, they are restricted from giving the person that salary. Romanoff said he doesn’t think this is fair or logical.

“I guess I think using your constitution to drive your budget policy is not the best way to respond to a changing economy and changing priorities,” he said.

But this bill would not be changing TABOR because a provision in TABOR allows this. The bill needs voter approval because it concerns their money.

If state funds for higher education are cut at the same rate every year, no money will be left for state colleges and universities in less than ten years, Romanoff said. Thatís why he’s confident the House and Senate will approve HB 11-94.

“I don’t think that most people want that,” he said. “Thatís why I think people will say yes.”

But why should, for example, John and Jane of Lakewood, college graduates in their 30s with no children, care about funding higher education?

“They should care because investing in higher education is the best single way of strengthening our economy,” Romanoff said. “If John and Jane want a job, there’s no better place to put their money but in higher education.”

He said the number one reason why businesses tell him they want to come to Colorado is not the low tax rate, or other reasons, but the skill of Colorado’s workforce.

“Colorado has more college graduates than any other place in America, but we do a horrible job of educating our own kids,” he said.

The proposal was presented last week but the bill has not been officially introduced. So far it has the support of Democrats, the majority party in the House and Senate, and several Republican legislators, including Sen. Steve Johnson from Fort Collins.

Some Republican legislators criticized the plan for expanding government in exchange for a miniscule tax cut. They’re afraid of government becoming too big and not being fiscally conservative with Colorado tax money.

Romanoff said the plan would not make the government any larger than it was in 2000, before the recession, meaning the government would not spend more than it did in 2000.

Metro Student Trustee Stephen Hay said Tuesday that Metro’s Board of Trustees had not yet specifically reviewed Romanoff’s plan, but that it supports any reform in TABOR.

“Fiscal reform at the state level is necessary,” Hay said, “because it’s going to take five to eight years for any of the changes to trickle down financially.”

Brian Glotzbach, Metro student and Student Government Assembly Vice President for Student Fees said he thinks the legislature should put aside party politics and make funding higher education its top priority. But he said what may be needed just as much is for more people to demand that the state fund higher ed.

“We donít do a very good job of telling (legislators), Hey, you need to look at your budget a different way,” Glotzbach said.

He also said he thinks people aren’t educated enough.

“They doní’now that higher ed is getting cut, they just see a tuition increase but donít know why it happens,” he said.

Natalie Lutes, Metro’s interim Vice President for Finance Administration has already said tuition at Metro could be raised by nearly $300 per student by this Fall to make up for lack in state funds.

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