Facebook Twitter

No choice but higher taxes for colleges?

Should there be a statewide property tax to help pay for Colorado’s public colleges and universities? What about sales taxes or levies on professional services? Or maybe the state income tax should be raised?

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.

Those are the kind of questions being asked by the panel that’s crafting a new strategic plan for Colorado’s public colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, created by Gov. Bill Ritter last December and formalized by a legislative bill passed earlier this month, has been studying financial and other issues for four months and now is getting ready to put together a first draft of its ideas.

The full steering committee met Wednesday for kind of a “what’s next” session, and the problem of paying for higher education took a significant chunk of time.

Higher education funding has taken major hits during both recessions in the last decade. Total higher ed revenue for this school year, last year and for 2010-11 is stable at just under $2 billion a year. But, college and university budgets have been maintained only with federal stimulus money, which runs out after 2010-11, and tuition increases.

With no immediate end in sight for the state’s revenue woes, some observers fear higher ed could face cuts of up to $300 million in state support in 2011-12.

A subcommittee of the steering panel has been focusing on financial issues, and chair Dick Monfort said, “The fact is, we’re looking for earmarked funds.”

The Sustainability Subcommittee has been kicking around five scenarios: A statewide property tax, higher local property taxes in college communities, earmarked sales taxes such as a prescription drugs tax to support medical education, a sales tax on services and use of minerals taxes for higher ed.

Monfort, an owner of the Colorado Rockies, also is co-chair of the main steering committee.

After listening to Monfort’s report, Jim Lyons, the other co-chair, said, “The cleanest, simplest way to raise the money is to raise the income tax. … We have the capacity in this state.” Lyons is a politically well-connected Denver lawyer.

“There were easier roads to take,” Monfort said while noting there might be public resistance to the kinds of tax increases discussed by the subcommittee.

Ex-officio member Don Elliman said, “Fundamentally, we all know the venting that Jim indulged in is right. … I’m sorry but we need a little bit of a tax increase.” Elliman is the state’s chief operating officer and a key advisor to Ritter.

Three other subcommittees have been studying issues such as access to college and the structure of the state system. According to reports made Wednesday, some of the ideas being kicked around by those panels include combining the departments of education and higher education, granting automatic college admission to high school students who meet certain academic requirements, concentrating state funding in community colleges and four-year colleges and giving universities additional autonomy, and awarding financial aid and stipends directly to students rather than through colleges.

Lyons, trying to draw the discussion together, said he saw three key themes in the work done so far:

  • The need for a performance-based funding system that allocates money to colleges based on results like retention and graduation.
  • Creation of a “tiered” system of institutions that, for instance, makes it easier for community college students to move on to other schools.
  • Preservation of excellence at the state’s research universities.

Panel members went back and forth on whether their ultimate recommendation should be “aspirational,” an ideal system, or “operational,” designed to meet the financial challenges of the next several years.

“I think our charge is the aspirational one,” said panel member Meg Porfido, a lawyer who serves on the community colleges board.

Bruce Benson, University of Colorado president, and Joe Blake, Colorado State University chancellor, aren’t members of the panel but sat in on Wednesday’s meeting. They both seemed to lean toward the operational side of the discussion.

“We can talk about all the formulas in the world, guys, but if we don’t have the money it doesn’t matter,” said Benson.

“There is a short-term and intermediate reality, and that is there is no money,” added Blake.

The group will meet June 23 is discuss initial drafts of recommendations and is planning town hall meetings around the state in July. The steering committee must make a final report to the legislature and the governor by the end of the year.

Significant changes in the state system could require legislation, and new taxes would need voter approval.

Senate Bill 10-003, which is awaiting Ritter’s signature, gives state colleges and universities various kinds of financial flexibility, including the ability to raise tuition up to 9 percent a year for five years starting in 2011-12. Requests for larger increases can be made to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. But, the measure was crafted as a temporary response, and the steering committee is to consider longer-term fixes.

As a sign of how tight things have gotten in higher ed, Benson and Blake mentioned that their two systems are discussing ways they can cooperate to save money.

“Maybe you ought to have one football team,” quipped Lyons. Benson and Blake just smiled.

Do your homework