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Higher education funding boost goes to governor

The proposed $100 million increase in higher education funding is returning to the place where the plan started – the governor’s office.

The House Friday voted 48-16 for final passage of Senate Bill 14-001 – what’s called the College Affordability Act.

The bill will provide $60 million in additional direct funding for state colleges and universities in 2014-15, an 11 percent increase over this year’s budget. The measure also increases funding for state financial aid programs by $40 million, a 42 percent jump. That includes $5 million for state merit-based financial aid, something that hasn’t existed for several years.

SB 14-001 also would cap tuition increases at no more than 6 percent for the next two school years, the feature of the bill that lawmakers most like to tout. (Current law allows tuition hikes of up to 9 percent – and colleges can seek permission for larger increases from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.)

The idea originated with the Hickenlooper administration, which included the funding plan in the budget it submitted last November. Democratic legislative leaders liked the idea so much they picked it up as a separate bill that became the first measure introduced in the Senate. (Higher education funding – both cuts and increases – has been just a part of the main state budget bill in past years.)

The governor’s original plan included only a gentlemen’s agreement with college trustees that they wouldn’t raise tuition by more than 6 percent next year. Lawmakers, counting on the political appeal of appearing tough on tuition, amended the hard two-year cap into the bill.

Higher education took significant funding cuts during the last two recessions, forcing trustees to raise tuition, which on average provides about 75 percent of college revenues.

The tuition cap prompted a warning on the floor from Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. She said the cap “is going to starve colleges and universities” because it reduces their future flexibility to respond to swings in state support.

The only other bill to fully clear the legislature Friday was House Bill 14-1287, which allows use of some Building Excellent Schools Today funds for schools damaged by declared natural disasters. The Senate voted final approval of the bill, and it goes to the governor because there were no Senate amendments.

The House passed Senate Bill 14-150 on a 38-26 vote. This is the measure that would double Colorado Counselor Corps funding to $10 million a year. The Senate will have to consider minor House amendments.

Three House bills passed Friday and move to the Senate. They are:

  • House Bill 14-1385, which would create an awards program – with trophies – for high schools that show the greatest academic growth every year in their football conferences. 64-0
  • House Bill 14-1376, which would require the Department of Education to create a data system that correlates placement of high school students in classes with their test scores. The idea is to gain more information about how minority and at-risk students are placed in different levels of classes. 37-27
  • House Bill 14-1382, commissioning a study of how multi-district online schools are authorized and overseen. 38-26

Another step on funding bills

The Senate Appropriations Committee Friday morning passed the session’s two significant K-12 funding bills with some important amendments.

The disputed financial transparency section of House Bill 14-1292 was softened less than 24 hours after the House Finance Committee tightened it. (See this story for what finance did and what this dispute is all about.) The appropriations amendment passed 5-2, and the bill passed 7-0.

“I think this actually a step backward,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the prime sponsor of HB 14-1292.

Appropriations approved two notable amendments to House Bill 14-1298, the school finance act. Members removed a proposed sweep of 2014-15 state surpluses into the State Education Fund and added $300,000 in spending for integration of early childhood student data into the state’s K-12 data system. (A separate bill proposing that died earlier in the session.)

Neither bill came up for Senate floor consideration later in the day, leaving those big debates for next week.