Colorado budget panel votes to cut higher ed by $300M |

Colorado budget panel votes to cut higher ed by $300M

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Lawmakers who develop the state budget are recommending cutting another $300 million from colleges and universities to close the state’s budget gap, raising questions about whether some smaller schools that rely on state aid would be able to survive such a hit.

Members of the Joint Budget Committee also voted Wednesday to allow schools to raise their tuition by more than 9 percent to make up for whatever the state can’t provide.

However, the panel also has a plan B. They voted to try to take $500 million from the reserves of workers’ compensation insurer Pinnacol Assurance, a state entity that operates largely independently. If lawmakers are successful in that effort, the plan is to restore the $300 million in cuts to higher education, which represents nearly half their budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The other $200 million could go into the state’s reserve or undo other cuts the budget committee struggled to make as they closed the expected $786 million shortfall in next year’s budget. Those cuts include slashing money for public hospitals promised under Referendum C and reducing funding for senior programs like Meals on Wheels.

Pinnacol doesn’t use any tax dollars but is overseen by a board appointed by the governor. It must provide workers’ compensation to any business that needs it.

A spokeswoman for Pinnacol didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment, but the company has maintained that its reserves belong to the Colorado businesses who pay premiums for coverage, not the state.

Lawmakers are also investigating whether to try to sell Pinnacol or bring it under tighter state control because of concerns about high salaries for its executives. That likely wouldn’t happen this year, though, and a previous bipartisan proposal to sell the company failed at the Legislature in 2001.

The budget committee’s decisions still have to be reviewed by the full Senate and House, a process that will start Monday.

If lawmakers don’t get the Pinnacol money to save higher education from cuts, they could end up losing over $100 million in federal stimulus dollars that Gov. Bill Ritter now plans to give to colleges and universities. That’s because the stimulus bill requires states to keep higher education budgets above 2005 levels. Ritter’s budget director, Todd Saliman, said the $300 million cut recommended by the budget committee would take them way below that level.

If the state can’t spend the money on higher education, he said it would go to kindergarten through 12th grade schools instead.

Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, said he thought schools would end up closing if the $300 million cut holds.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said budget committee members zeroed in on higher education because there was nothing left to cut except for things such as cutting off aid to the developmentally disabled. But he said there was no plan as to which schools could survive and which ones couldn’t, especially after next year when any potential Pinnacol money would be tapped out.

“There’s no grand plan here. We’re just trying to keep the lights on,” Pommer said.

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