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Publish Date: 8/25/2005

Larimer lawmakers debate impact of Referendum C on higher education

FORT COLLINS — If voters reject Referendum C, Colorado will be forced to become the first state in the nation to end state tax support for its public colleges and universities, Larimer County Republican Sen. Steve Johnson predicted Wednesday.

Colorado’s public colleges would have to become self-sufficient “private” institutions, relying solely on student tuition and fees, grants and other sources of income, Johnson warned.

Not so, countered Berthoud-area Republican Rep. Kevin Lundberg.

“I am going to disagree very strongly with my good friend and my state senator,” Lundberg said.

“If Referendum C fails, I do not believe that higher education will be privatized in Colorado.”

Colleges and universities’ annual budgets have increased during and since the recession, Lundberg argued.

But Johnson countered that spending growth included tuition hikes and other non-state funding that do not reflect reductions in state budget support for those institutions since 2001.

The two Larimer County lawmakers’ disagreements on Referendum C came during a debate attended by more than 30 members and guests of the Republican Lunch Club.

Referendum C, which Johnson supports and Lundberg opposes, asks voters to allow the state to keep and spend a projected $3.7 billion that otherwise will have to be refunded to Coloradans over the coming five years.

If voters approve Referendum C, at least 30 percent of that money would have to be spent “for the benefit of students attending community colleges and other institutions of higher education,” under a measure the Legislature adopted earlier this year.

That could include additional funding for need-based and merit-based financial aid; for the new College Opportunity Fund vouchers program that allocates state higher-education subsidies on the basis of which college Colorado high school graduates choose to attend; and for higher education construction projects.

As much as $400 million may have to be cut from programs in the state budget’s $6 billion tax-supported general fund next year if C fails, Johnson said, adding that general-fund support for higher education represents the biggest and most vulnerable chunk that the Legislature would have the legal discretion to slash.

The Legislature already has cut general-fund support for higher education by nearly $200 million over the past few years, Johnson said, and Gov. Bill Owens’ Office of State Planning and Budgeting has estimated that a defeat of Referendum C could require further reducing the general fund’s remaining higher-education contribution by 68 percent next year.

Johnson said many college officials have told lawmakers they’ll have to double in-state tuition if the state ends all its general-fund assistance — something he said could happen within the next 10 years, if Referendum C loses.

The Department of Higher Education’s $2.1 billion appropriation for the current 2005-06 fiscal year includes about $598 million from the state budget’s general fund, according the the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.

Lundberg, however, disputed Johnson’s contention that higher education is in jeopardy.

“We have a commitment to higher ed” in the Legislature, and “I have a commitment to higher ed,” Lundberg said. “We are not going to privatize it.”

There are ways to trim the budget, Lundberg said, but too many lawmakers “are just not that serious about saving money. We are serious about spending it.”

By defeating Referendum C, Lundberg said, “the people of Colorado can say to the state: ‘Live within your means.’”

John Fryar can be reached by e-mail at jfryar@times-call.com.

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