DENVER — Racing to come up with proposals to save higher education from a financial cliff, college presidents held a brainstorming summit Thursday at the state Capitol to come up with new ideas that all of them could support.
Senate Majority Leader John Morse, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, said the economic crisis has given lawmakers and college leaders “a unique opportunity” to make sweeping changes.
Morse said the proposals will be submitted to the Legislature’s Longterm Fiscal Stability Commission, with a Nov. 2 deadline for any legislation it recommends.
Suggestions for an omnibus higher education rescue bill included allowing colleges and universities flexibility in setting tuition, exemption from state personnel rules limiting the use of temporary employees, exemptions from the state pension program to keep educators from seeking early retirement, allowing colleges to enroll more international students and limits on financial reporting.
Morse called it a “big, hairy audacious goal” that has a chance of success because it’s so bold.
University of Colorado President Bruce Benson was more subdued after the meeting, saying the ad hoc group came up some suggestions, but no new ways to create more revenue. He said the tougher issues, such as eliminating duplicate programs and giving the Colorado Commission on Higher Education more control over funding, will take more time.
“It’s efficiencies, there’s no real money there. It’s a start, and you have to start somewhere,” Benson said.
The proposals immediately ran into a conflict when Rico Munn, the governor’s new director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, told college leaders Gov. Bill Ritter will veto any bill that provides tuition flexibility.
“That’s a nonstarter,” Munn told a packed meeting at the state Capitol.
University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton told colleagues that colleges and universities are different from other state agencies because they have their own boards and she believes they should be able to set their own policies. She said that should include setting tuition so institutions can maximize use of state and federal funds.
Ritter is being forced by state law to cut $560 million from this fiscal year’s budget, which ends June 30. Over this fiscal year and the next, lawmakers will see the state General Fund budget slashed from $7.5 billion to $6.2 billion.
Munn said the budget crisis will get worse when federal stimulus funds end next year.
“We essentially have a date certain out there when we hit that cliff and the federal funds go away,” Munn said.
Morse said higher education is a prime target for budget cuts because state law requires voter approval for any tax increases, and funding for programs like Medicaid and public education are protected by state and federal laws.