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Budget proposal rejected due to higher ed cuts

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Higher education is facing the chopping block in the Colorado budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, though the most recent move from Colorado Senate President Peter Groff may keep the cuts from being as severe as first proposed by the Joint Budget Committee.

Four weeks ago, when the TODAY reported on the pending tuition increase, the administration at Colorado State University-Pueblo said it was prepared for an increase due to budget cuts for the current fiscal year,  as well as cuts that were expected for next year, which total $166 million over the two years.

Since then, the new budget has been presented, with the new cuts to include an additional $350 million in deductions for higher education throughout the state, and was recently rejected by Groff.

While many agencies are reporting the total reduction state-wide at $423 million, Joanne Ballard, vice president for finance and administration at CSU-Pueblo, said it is closer to a loss of over $486 million. The extra money includes the $30 million loss from the current fiscal year and $34 million previously promised to higher education, which the governor has taken back.

The newly proposed budget cuts will lead to an $8.7 million deficit for CSU-Pueblo and $100 million for the Colorado State University System, Joseph Garcia, president of CSU-Pueblo, said.

Breaking it down into singular solutions, a 57 percent tuition increase, a 37 percent pay cut across the board or a four-month furlough could generate the revenue to cover the deficit, Garcia said.  None of these are practical solutions to the problem as they are both unreasonable and excessive, he said.

A tuition increase of that magnitude would be impractical to implement for several reasons, Garcia said.

First, the impact on the students and their ability to afford higher education could affect enrollment, he said. Second, any increase in tuition greater then 9 percent must be approved by the governor and legislature, as written in the footnote of the proposed budget bill.

Currently, the administration at CSU-Pueblo is only looking at the parameters right now, Ballard said. She said currently the proposed budget is changing too frequently to begin working on a package, so right now the focus is on what would have to be done if only one step was taken to correct the deficit.

Garcia said once the state budget has been approved, the school will put together a package of cuts, revenue increases and reserves in order to manage the CSU-Pueblo budget.

“Wherever we end up it will be a package of things,” Ballard said. “Tuition increases will be one of the pieces in there, but it will not be the only piece.”

Other specifics, such as lay-offs and cutting programs have been discussed but only broadly, though no single program or person has been mentioned, she said.

The Assistant Vice President of Enrollment, Joseph Marshall, said currently enrollment at CSU-Pueblo is higher than last year, which he said was the best year ever, approximately 11 percent.  However, those enrollments and applications are based on last year’s tuition price, he said.

He also said CSU-Pueblo is in better shape than many of its competitors because it is one of the few schools currently growing.

While the school is growing, CSU-Pueblo has a much higher percentage of lower-income students than University of Colorado at Boulder or Colorado College, in which could cause a problem if tuition is raised, Marshall said. It is possible if tuition is raised, fewer students may attend and that will ultimately affect our school and our state, he said.

“It’s very difficult, to say the least,” Marshall said. “We’re very successful at attracting more students and that helps the broader community, and just as we’re getting most successful, access seems to be restricted. It’s discouraging.” But he said it’s a cycle he has seen before and he believes it will pass.

There are a few possibilities being discussed in regards to the state budget. Two of them are the use of money for higher education from the federal stimulus package and using reserves from Pinnacol Assurance.

The stimulus package maintenance of effort requirement for higher education said states must fund the same amount as the previous year, $705 million for fiscal year 2008-2009, but because the budget cuts are below that mark, the state then technically becomes ineligible to receive stimulus money, Garcia said.

Ballard said before the newly proposed deduction over $300 million from the budget, the state was eligible for the stimulus money.

Using funds from Pinnacol Assurance may be a drawn out process, Ballard said. Pinnacol Assurance was a state agency previously, but is now a “quasi-state agency,” which means the state may not have any rights to the money, she said.  

Forbes.com reported the state is trying to take up to $500 million from the company, with $300 million of it being used to patch the hole in higher education.

It is a matter for the lawyers and courts to determine, but the time and money involved in the process could result in a change to the budget, even after it passes, Ballard said.

Until the bill has passed legislation, people who feel strongly about this issue should exercise their rights as citizens to contact their elected officials, Garcia said.

 Ballard said she believes it is the most effective thing students and their families can do.

“That puts a personal face on this game the legislature is playing,” Ballard said. “They’re talking about huge, big numbers. They’re talking about entities that they kind of consider chess pieces and the students and their parents are what forces the issue of, ‘Hey look at me this is how you impact real life.'”

Students who are concerned about the effect the state budget will have on CSU-Pueblo have two avenues, Ballard said.

The most effective way for students and their families to communicate ideas about the CSU-Pueblo budget is through the Associated Student Government president and vice president, who sit on the universities’ strategic budget committee, Ballard said.

Ballard said it is the existing formal structured avenue for the students’ voice and that is why the Associated Student Government is in those conversations. She said it is their job to bring the students’ voice to the boards and committees.

“At this institution you also have a president and senior administration who are absolutely open to talking to the students,” Ballard said, “but one student coming in and saying something is not going to be as effective as the ASG president representing a broad student view point.”

It is unknown when the budget will be finalized, but students should receive a letter from CSU-Pueblo when the tuition increase has been approved by the Board of Governors to inform them of the increase, Marshall said.

“We still plan to do everything we can make sure we can offer a quality education to all of the students who come to CSU-Pueblo,” Garcia said. “We’ll figure out how to deal with those cuts once we know how big they really are.”