It’s rare to see vigorous public debate between the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor, especially when they’re from the same party. But a proposed higher education funding bill brought out just that at a House Education Committee hearing Monday.

At issue is House Bill 14-1319, a proposal by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. In broad terms, it would shift funding to “access” institutions, such as the community colleges and Metropolitan State University, and target some funding to state colleges and universities based on such performance indicators as graduation rates.

In addition to highlighting differences between Ferrandino and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also executive director of the Department of Higher Education, the hearing also revealed divisions between research universities and smaller rural colleges on one side and Metro and the community colleges on the other.

Although Ferrandino has been working on the idea for a long time, the bill surfaced publically only on March 13 and immediately raised big questions in the higher education establishment (see story).

Some observers questioned the timing of the bill so late in the legislative session and speculated that Ferrandino was pushing for a “legacy” measure, given that he’s term-limited so will leave the legislature after this session.

In response to criticism and questions, Ferrandino wrote a whole new version of the bill even before Monday’s three-hour hearing. Further changes are expected, given continued concerns. The panel didn’t discuss possible amendments nor vote on Monday and may consider the bill again on Wednesday.

Ferrandino’s amendment would give the Colorado Commission on Higher Ediucation a greater role in fleshing out the new funding system, but Monday’s hearing made clear that he hasn’t eliminated all concerns about the bill.

A key element of the bill is the proposed requirement that 52.5 percent of higher education funding be funneled through the College Opportunity Fund, a mechanism that provides tuition discounts to resident undergraduate students. The actual per-student amount has fluctuated up and down (mostly down) in recent years as state revenue declines have forced lawmakers to cut higher education funding. While 52.5 percent is about what has been allocated to stipends in recent years, many college leaders oppose locking that percentage into state law.

In his testimony Garcia made it clear that the department doesn’t feel the bill makes a significant change in the current system. “This funding model is based primarily on enrollment and includes some outcome-based factors,” he said.

Garcia said the bill “will inevitably shift resources” from research universities and rural colleges to large open-access institutions like Metropolitan State University and community colleges. “It’s a zero-sum game.”

He said later, “I think the bill makes a valiant effort to address really important issues” like college completion and closing ethnic completion. Bit, he added, “The current system’s that in place can work and is working.” Under terms of a recent higher education master plan, the DHE has negotiated performance contracts with all institutions, and an existing state law requires a portion of college funding be based on performance later in this decade, after certain base levels of state support for higher education are achieved.

The lieutenant governor said Ferrandino’s bill is “a too-complex way to get to where we’ve already decided we want to go.”

Ferrandino wasn’t convinced, saying, “I have to disagree. The current system isn’t working” because it’s based on an old model of allocations to institutions that penalizes schools like Metro.

The discussion was very polite, with Garcia and other witnesses all praising Ferrandino for listening to their concerns and being willing to make tweaks in his proposal. Officially, DHE is neutral on the bill.

Metro President Steve Jordan testified strongly in favor of the bill, as did Mark Superka, vice president of finance and administration for the community college system.

Representatives of Fort Lewis College, Western State Colorado University and Adams State University raised concerns about the bill, as did Todd Saliman, chief financial officer of the University of Colorado System.

“It will drive our tuition up. Students will pay more at the University of Colorado if this bill becomes law,” he said. “We think there should be access and affordability not just for the students of community colleges but also for the students of the University of Colorado.” Rich Schweigert, Colorado State University chief financial officer, echoed Saliman’s concerns.

Dick Kaufman, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, echoed the concerns of others when he said, “The basic problem here, I think everybody knows, is that we don’t have enough money in the system.”

Ferrandino said he would work on additional amendments to the bill, although he’s not willing to compromise the 52.5 percent earmark for tuition stipends. “I would leave it up to the committee on that issue.”

Read the current version of Ferrandino’s bill here.