Restoring cuts to higher ed should top state’s priorities

Higher education suffered greatly during the perennial budget cutting by the state in recent years. Those cuts were forced, of course, by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, along with an economic slowdown and mandatory funding for K-12 education.

State lawmakers, including the governor and legislators, had little choice but to slash higher ed, given sacrosanct funding for Medicaid, prisons and schools, all of which collectively consume the bulk of the state budget.

But voters in November responded to repeated pleas to support Referendum C, which allows the state to keep funds beyond the limits of TABOR for five years. Those pleas included repeated warnings about the dire state of higher education, and many voted for Referendum C precisely because they were concerned about higher ed.

Former University of Northern Colorado president (and interim University of Colorado president) Hank Brown, in particular, was effective at stating the case for the state’s colleges and universities. Other proponents of Referendum C included Colorado State University president Larry Penley and UNC president Kay Norton.

In short, concerns about higher education were a main reason for passage of Referendum C.

Now, after Referendum C advocates used higher ed as a rallying point for passage of the measure, state officials are remaining noncommittal about where excess revenues might be used as they begin the legislative session.

Here’s a recommendation: Keep faith with voters by putting higher education at the top of the list, as advocated in a recent editorial by the Northern Colorado Business Report. Here’s why:

Cuts made to higher ed have a direct effect on the state’s ability to compete in both the national and global economies. A company looking to relocate or expand to Colorado often will look at the state of higher education. Of late, companies evaluating the state have seen higher education on the chopping block.

Millions of dollars have been pulled from CSU, UNC, CU and other institutions.  Tuition has increased sharply to help ease the financial burden, but lawmakers, citizens and students have little stomach for further drastic hikes, making it impossible for tuition to make up for all the funds that were cut.

It’s time to reverse the trend.

Other priorities exist, of course, including transportation and social services to benefit the poor. But higher education must be among the priorities. It drives the state’s economy, bringing in federal research dollars. It helps to lure companies seeking collaboration with engineering, bioscience and other disciplines found at our institutions of higher learning. It brings in students from out of state, pumping new revenues into businesses and tax coffers alike.

Higher education has borne more than its share of budget cuts. It should reap a significant portion of new revenues. It’s what voters expected when they said “yes” to Referendum C, and it’s what they expect now.

Christopher Wood can be reached at (970) 221-5400 or via e-mail at cwood@ncbr.com.  His fax number is (970) 221-5432.