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Hearing on tuition flex bill stalls

The Senate Education Committee tried to race the clock Wednesday on the tuition flexibility bill and lost.

The panel started taking testimony at about 11 a.m. on Senate Bill 10-003, probably the most significant higher education measure of the 2010 legislative session. That left only 2½  hours before the next flight of Senate committee meetings was to start.

SB 10-003 would give state colleges and universities greater power to set their own tuition rates and also would give college boards various other types of financial flexibility. It’s being pushed as a necessary but interim fix to the fresh financial challenges facing the state system starting in 2011-12.

A commission appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter is studying longer-term proposals for funding and structuring public higher education.

Montage of Colorado colleges

From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

While the bill wouldn’t give college trustees free rein with tuition, it would shift the overall approval role from the governor’s office and the legislature to college boards and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which would have to approve tuition increases larger than 9 percent a year.

The bill has been in the works since last summer but has gone through two major revisions before it even came up on Senate Ed’s agenda. The version under consideration by the panel represents a compromise among the administration, college presidents and other interests.

Among witnesses who testified to the committee Wednesday, higher education leaders like Bruce Benson of the University of Colorado and Joe Blake of Colorado State University supported the bill, even though it wouldn’t give them everything they would want.

Representatives of students and public-interest advocacy groups raised concerns.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, said the executive branch supports the bill but wants it to have a sunset provision rather than being open ended.

The final witness, state Controller David McDermott, was the least conciliatory of the bunch. He raised all sorts of legal and financial questions about giving colleges greater fiscal freedom. “I think it goes a lot further than it needs to,” he said.

McDermott’s testimony was strikingly similar to questions he raised a year ago about a college financial flexibility bill that failed in the 2009 legislative session. (That measure didn’t include tuition flexibility.)

Committee member Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, noted that those issues also were aired during the deliberations of a legislative study committee last summer. Heath asked prime sponsor Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, why this disagreements hadn’t been worked out earlier.

Morse essentially said he and McDermott have different opinions.

The committee will discuss amendments and the bill at its Thursday afternoon meeting. That calendar already is packed with House Bill 10-1013, which would extend some deadlines for the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-002, one version of the proposed constitutional amendment that would exempt education-related taxes from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Key provisions of the flexibility proposal being considered by the committee include:

• Starting in the 2011-12 school year, college boards would have the power to set tuition rates as they chose, but raises higher than 9 percent for resident undergraduates would have to be approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

• To get CCHE approval, a school would have to provide a four-year financial and accountability plan detailing the amount of the increase, how access and affordability would be maintained for low- and middle-income students, details on how the school is implementing flexibility in fiscal rules and how the school is ensuring levels of services and academic quality.

(These two provisions pretty much mirror the Ritter administration position as developed by the CCHE and the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, with the exception of not having a sunset provision.)

• No later than next Nov. 10, colleges would have to give the CCHE and the Joint Budget Committee plans for how they would handle a possible 50 percent cut in state support in 2011-12.

• The CCHE would continue to determine the amount of state financial aid each institution receives, but individual colleges would have more flexibility to allocate that aid among their students. The state auditor would review access and affordability during its biennial reviews of state colleges and universities. (Supporters of the bill argue that recent increases in federal financial aid cover low-income students but that colleges need more flexibility to provide aid to middle-income students.)

• Colleges and universities would be allowed to set their own financial rules, be exempt from state central purchasing requirements, manage their own debts and contracts, receive additional freedom to manage construction projects and real estate transactions and greater flexibility in rehiring retired employees than is allowed in state government overall. (College presidents have been pushing for these financial flexibility provisions for more than a year, allow they repeatedly stress that such flexibility alone won’t solve all of the system’s financial challenges. This is the part of the bill that McDermott questions.)

• The higher education strategic plan now being developed by an appointed committee and four advisory panels would have to be submitted by next Dec. 15.

• CU would be given greater flexibility to enroll more foreign students (who generally are full-pay students), and the Colorado School of Mines also would receive some special flexibility provisions.

Higher education funding, which unlike some other state programs isn’t protected by any requirements of the state constitution or federal law, has taken major funding hits during both recessions in the last decade.

Total higher education revenue for this school year, last year and for 2010-11 is stable at just under $2 billion a year. For next year the state is providing just under $600 million. College and university budgets have been maintained only with federal stimulus money (which runs out after 2010-11) and tuition increases.

Morse said state budget challenges in 2011-12 could force a $300 million cut in aid to higher ed.

While rising tuition has become something of a popular complaint and a political hot potato, on average Colorado colleges and universities generally still have lower tuition than comparable peer institutions around the nation.

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For the record

After lengthy but predictable pro and con testimony, the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday approved two proposed constitutional amendments. Both passed on 3-2 party-line votes.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-003 would require minimum percentages of signatures for proposed constitutional amendments be gathered in each congressional district. It also would require proposed constitutional amendments by passed by 60 percent margins, but would require only a majority of votes to repeal existing ones.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-001 would create a 19-member Constitutional Review Commission that would meet every six years, consider particular parts of the state constitution and recommend proposed changes to the voters. The legislature would have to approve proposed amendments before they went on the ballot.

To make the November ballot the measures will have to pass each house of the legislature both two-thirds margins, something considered unlikely this year.

The Senate Wednesday gave final approval to Senate Bill 10-064, which would simplify the application process for College Opportunity Fund stipends; House Bill 10-1035, which streamlines eligibility procedures for early childhood services, and House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to offer school food services and also creates a grant program.

Senators also accepted the conference committee report and repassed House Bill 10-1383, which transfers money from a CollegeInvest scholarship fund to a different financial aid program and to the state general fund.

The House gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-108, which would allow private and proprietary colleges to participate – for a fee – in the state higher education system of common courses.