Budget plan harms colleges, businesses

In attempting to deal with looming budget shortfalls, the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee has come up with a proposal that intentionally pits workers and businesses against Colorado’s colleges and universities.

The JBC wants to raid hundreds of millions of dollars from the private, quasi-governmental entity that manages workers’ compensation fund for businesses in the state. However, because the Legislature’s authority to take money from the workers’ comp fund is nonexistent, the JBC has proposed cutting at least $300 million more from higher education next year. Then JBC leaders told college officials to lobby Pinnacol Assurance, the group that manages the workers’ comp money, to voluntarily give up the money.

This is a travesty of real legislative decision making. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The JBC could consider across-the-board cuts for all state programs, instead of attempting to get all of the money from higher education. And it could cut programs adopted just last year.

The group of Mesa State College students who vowed last week to go to the state Capitol to protest the proposed higher-education cuts have every reason to object. Colleges and universities have borne the brunt of recent financial crises in this state. College funding shouldn’t be gutted once more simply because legislators lack the fortitude to make more universal cuts.

Ransacking the workers’ compensation fund is also a bad solution, beginning with the legality of it.

The law prohibits taking assets from the fund for public uses, Pinnacol President and CEO Ken Ross said Friday. If lawmakers pass legislation demanding Pinnacol give up any money, the organization will consider legal action, Ross said.

The money Pinnacol holds represents the assets of some 58,000 private businesses that contribute money to provide for workers who are injured on the job. If the state were to take those private assets and put them to public use, it would amount to an unapproved tax on businesses in Colorado.

Beyond that, the assets in Pinnacol’s trust fund were built up to ensure money is available to protect injured workers. Ravaging that fund could mean there is insufficient money in coming years to meet the needs of injured workers.

By Friday, some members of the JBC seemed to realize the Pinnacol plan wouldn’t work.

But their alternative is simply to cut hundreds of millions from higher education, leaving colleges and universities to raise tuition, potentially by more than 40 percent.

If the JBC won’t back off from this unconscionable plan, other lawmakers must reject it and look for more responsible means of meeting the budget needs.


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