Cutting to save higher education

We have to admit we’re not thrilled with most of the cuts in state spending being proposed at the state Capitol this week.

That’s the problem with cutting budgets. Every piece of spending was enacted to meet a perceived need, and cutting those funds means it will be more difficult to meet those needs.

But we are even less enamored with the notion that Colorado could gut state funding for higher education. Spreading the misery around with a lot of smaller cuts is a better approach than having one critical state service bear the brunt of the budget butchery.

The Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee last week proposed cutting funding for higher education by at least another $300 million next year, on top of cuts that have already occurred for colleges and universities.

But doing so would mean tuition increases of 40 percent or more at places like Mesa State College. It could mean that other institutions, such as Adams State College in Alamosa, as well as several of the state’s community colleges, would be forced to close. And it would mean fewer opportunities for people throughout the state of Colorado to continue their education beyond high school.

Furthermore, as Adams State President David Svaldi wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Daily Sentinel Thursday, such cuts represent “the beginning of the end of state-supported higher education in Colorado.”

That sends a terrible message to all Coloradans, as well as businesses in this state and those that might want to locate here. In the 21st century, education that continues beyond high school is more critical than ever.

The Joint Budget Committee did leave higher education an option: Officials with the state’s colleges and universities could work with the Legislature to take money from the workers’ compensation surplus funds maintained by Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-governmental agency. In fact, a bill to do just that has passed the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The problem is, that money was contributed by private businesses specifically to meet the needs of workers injured on the job. And state law adopted in 2002 expressly says money can’t be taken from Pinnacol reserves for the state General Fund. Additionally, officials with Pinnacol have said they will sue the state if it attempts to legislatively grab the workers’ comp reserves.

Fortunately, a number of lawmakers of both parties have decided that there are other options. Hence the proposed cuts that will give people with many different interests across the state heartburn.

Among the cuts are a Republican plan to eliminate $100 million in new funding for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. Even with the loss of that money, K-12 education would still receive a 2 percent increase in state money, compared to last year.

Republicans are also talking about furloughing state employees and requiring pay cuts for lawmakers and some highly paid state employees.

Democrats are talking of taking $40 million from a fund used for loans to build water projects and eliminating the sales-tax exemption for cigarettes to raise another $30 million. Another idea is to eliminate the income-tax exemption for capital gains that come from Colorado assets. Funding for international trade programs, prison recreation and bioscience economic development may also be on the chopping block.

None of these proposals is particularly appealing. We’re especially unhappy with the prospect of using money set aside to help build new water projects. But these are unusual times, and many programs in the state will have to be cut if Colorado is to survive this economic crisis and still have a viable higher-education system when the crisis is over.


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