Western Slope leaders bracing for money tussle with Front Range

Western Slope politicians and organizations are hoping that battles over the state budget don’t boil down to a rural-urban divide.

If that happens, rural communities have more to lose, said state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.

The issue has arisen as legislators have raised the possibility of shunting state money away from higher education to balance other spending.

Reductions at far-flung Colorado Northwest Community College, for instance, would hit the Rangely economy far more heavily than would similar-sized reductions in the Front Range metro area, said White and Reeves Brown, the executive director of Club 20, the Western Slope lobbying and promotional organization.

State officials also need to take care with comments that leave potential students second-guessing whether the Colorado institutions in which they’re interested will remain open, Mesa State College President Tim Foster said.

Talk of defunding higher education is “irresponsible,” Foster said. “They need to stop it.”

In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, Club 20 said the Legislature should consider the “disproportionate” effect of cuts on rural communities.

“For instance, when a health care clinic is closed in a metro area, it requires patients to drive an additional 10 minutes,” Club 20 wrote.” But when the only health clinic in a rural county is closed, it may require an additional half-day commitment for patients to drive to the next county.”

The same thing holds for rural colleges, White said.

He will be looking for Front Range consolidation and closures before closing the few opportunities we have in western Colorado,” White said.

Rural Colorado will have to deal with budget cuts, Brown said.

“We don’t want to be the organization of no and oppose every cut affecting the region,” he said, but the organization wants to make sure cuts don’t damage programs that are important to prosperity in the future.

To that end, Club 20 also is urging that no cuts be made in tourism promotion, citing “conclusive evidence that the state’s investment in tourism returns exponentially more to the state’s economy than it costs.”

State officials are now wrestling with cutting $240 million from the budget after making $320 million in reductions at the end of summer.

The first round of cuts hit the Grand Junction Regional Center, where the skilled-nursing unit is to be closed as a part of cost-saving measures.

Legislators also must confront what will happen when federal money used by the state for higher education runs out in a year, White said.

About $230 million in federal money has been diverted to higher education, but that flow of dollars will end, White said.

“That’s an issue we need to be aware of,” he said.


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