College students fight higher ed budget cuts
DENVER ” College students rallied Monday at the state Capitol against budget cuts for state colleges and universities that could open the door to double-digit tuition increases.
Aaron “Jack” Wylie, a volunteer lobbyist for the Associated Students of Colorado, told about 100 students gathered on the West Steps that students already are struggling to pay for tuition and books and hold down jobs.
“We refuse to have the state budget balanced on our backs,” said Wylie, a Metro State College student.
State lawmakers are considering cutting about $425 million from higher education in the next fiscal year, a 60 percent reduction from this year.
About $100 million of that is expected to be offset by federal stimulus money. Members of the Joint Budget Committee would like to restore another $300 million of those cuts by taking $500 million from the surplus accumulated by Pinnacol Assurance, the state-created workers’ compensation insurer.
It’s a risky move because Pinnacol has threatened to fight any vote by the Legislature to take the money. And if lawmakers can’t find another way to restore $300 million to higher education, the state could be barred from spending any stimulus money on colleges. That’s because the stimulus bill requires states to keep education funding at or above 2005 levels.
Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, urged students at the rally to help lawmakers pass the bill to take the money from Pinnacol to keep higher education protected at least for this year. He stood in front of a sign proclaiming “Pucker Up Pinnacol” held by University of Northern Colorado sophomore Walt Becker of Broomfield.
The Colorado Commission on Higher Education says the proposed cuts, without any stimulus or Pinnacol money, would require up to a 68 percent increase in tuition rates, which would cause some students to drop out.
Bill Mansheim, vice president of finance and administration at Adams State College in Alamosa, said his school can’t increase tuition because it serves the five poorest counties in Colorado, where the average income is $24,000 a year.
Some other Republicans in the Senate aren’t happy with the choice between Pinnacol and saving higher education.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who also spoke at the rally, said the budget committee needs to go back and consider some of the other proposals they rejected on their so-called “ugly list” of cuts, including furloughs.
Budget committee chairwoman Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, has said furloughs would save the state about $1 million a day, and that even furloughing workers for most of the year wouldn’t make up for the cut that higher education is facing.
The budget committee has recommended more than $700 million in cuts, transfers and accounting moves for the fiscal year that begins in July to make up for an expected decline in tax revenue because of the recession.
Senators got their first look at the package Monday and are expected to continue discussions about the budget Tuesday before voting on the package later this week.
All recommended changes, such as the plan to take Pinnacol’s surplus, must be approved by the full Legislature.
Legislative economists predict a deeper and longer recession in Colorado than originally expected. State tax revenue is expected to drop a total of $900 million between this year and next.
Lawmakers are also preparing in case their next economic forecast in June is even worse.
About $200 million of the $500 million that lawmakers are considering taking from Pinnacol would be put in a reserve fund to plug any additional holes if revenues are forecast to drop even more. If not, the money could be used to reverse some of the other cuts lawmakers are now considering instead.
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