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In-state tuition at Colorado universities could rise up to 3% on average under governor’s budget plan

Gov. Jared Polis also says he wants to work with the legislature to find a sustainable solution for transportation funding, which could mean some form of a tax increase. One option is to take a regional approach as opposed to a statewide one.

The University of Colorado campus. (File photo)
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In-state tuition at Colorado’s state-run colleges and universities could rise as much as 3% on average under Gov. Jared Polis’ budget proposal presented to state lawmakers on Wednesday, leaving some alarmed about the prospect of driving up the cost of higher education.

The Democrat wants to spent $147 million on higher education, up a relatively small $26 million from the current fiscal year, and cap in-state tuition increases at an average of 3%. 

But some lawmakers say that amount of spending isn’t enough and that the cap could force state colleges and universities to make budget cuts.

“It’s unlikely to keep up with the cost pressure the system is feeling,” said state Rep. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and state budget writer. “In a sense, he’s forcing cuts or forced savings in the system. That’s a laudable goal, we want to bend the cost curve — we want to get more efficient. I think everyone agrees that universities have done some important things in this area, but his proposal this year is definitely going to require a lot of adaptation to the institutions.” 

The proposed tuition increase comes after Polis worked with lawmakers during the last legislative session to keep in-state tuition flat for the current fiscal year. The governor’s office said there was a plan to keep tuition flat for the upcoming fiscal year as well, but that the failure of Proposition CC last week — which sought to eliminate state spending caps under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — dashed that option. 

The potential tuition increase also comes a day after Polis unveiled plans to drive down the cost of higher education through initiatives like reducing textbook costs and granting lower-income students free tuition. 

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. (Handout)

“I find that there’s a disconnect between the plan that they unveiled yesterday … coupled with a budget request that in my mind seems counterproductive to achieving those goals,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee.

Hansen added that in previous years the legislature, when it hasn’t given higher education a large sum, has allowed schools to raise tuition as they see fit.

“Now we’re saying small state contribution and you can’t go more than 3%. That’s what the governor is proposing,” Hansen said. “Institutions, I think that is a hard spot for them, so we’ll have to dig into that.”

Polis said he was open to shifting more money toward higher education, but that it would likely come at the expense of a new program he wants to introduce that would cover the student-loan interest costs of recent graduates for a few years after they leave school.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis presents his budget proposal to the legislature’s Join Budget Committee on Nov. 13, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The tuition discussion came as Polis presented his entire proposed $32.4 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year to the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday. The reception was lukewarm. Lawmakers expressed concern about the governor’s plans on health insurance, opioids and the state’s financial security in the face of an economic downturn.

The governor’s budget is just a request that lawmakers can use as a guide as they write the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. They don’t have to approve any of Polis’ asks.  

Here are some other highlights from the presentation: 

MORE: Jared Polis doubles down in 2021 budget proposal with requests for big-ticket items


New regional revenue for transportation?

One big-ticket item the Joint Budget Committee didn’t immediately push back on was Polis’ request to spend $605 million on transportation. But he cautioned — as he has before — that a dedicated revenue stream is needed to reliably fund needed road fixes and improvements.

“We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to do that,” Polis said

Hansen said those conversations are already underway and have been “very robust.” He said lawmakers are looking at hybrid ways to fund transportation that include existing funds and new revenue sources, potentially one that takes a regional approach to taxation.

State Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, is joined by his two sons, Ashwin, 10, left, and Sachin, 11, inside the House chamber just before the start of the first legislative day on Jan. 4, 2019. (Special to The Colorado Sun, Kathryn Scott)

“We seem to have voters willing to support regional ideas where statewide initiatives have not done as well,” Hansen said, “so we may need to bring that into the mix. My worry is trying to think of the whole state and how do we create a workable transportation solution for the state. Those regional solutions could leave many places out in the cold.”

Polis did not speak to reporters after presenting his budget. A spokesman said later in the day that the governor is meeting with stakeholders to figure out the best route. 

“We will continue to look for consensus to identify a sustainable revenue source for our infrastructure needs,” Polis’ spokesman, Conor Cahill, said in a written statement. 

Colorado voters have been repeatedly unwilling to pass a statewide tax increase to pay for transportation funding. Most recently they rejected Proposition 110 in 2018, a 0.62% state sales tax hike. Proposition CC, the spending cap measure voted down last week, also would have money dedicated toward transportation needs.

“Break-the-glass-type emergency resources”

Polis and lawmakers also spent a good deal of time discussing the status of the state’s reserves, which would be tapped in an economic downturn.  

Polis and Hansen agreed that more needs to be done.

“Our state reserves are insufficient to weather a downtown,” Polis said, explaining that the state’s rainy day funds have fallen well below the national average. 

The governor wants to increase the amount of money kept in reserve to 7.5% of the state’s total expenditures, or by an extra $31 million, for the next fiscal year. He called that money “break-the-glass-type emergency resources.”

Hansen said he is worried about a $1 billion deficit in the state’s unemployed insurance fund. During the Great Recession, the state went through the reserve in about six months, and he says even a mild recession could drain it within a year. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at an event honoring veterans on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

What lawmakers didn’t question

There were several big-ticket requests from Polis that lawmakers didn’t immediately question, though they are expected to be the focus of intense debate during the upcoming legislative session, which begins on Jan. 8. 

Those include:

  • $28 million to expand the state’s preschool program
  • $10 million for an eight-week paid family leave program for state employees
  • $9 million to close the private Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center for prison inmates and reopen two towers at the Centennial Correctional Facility near Cañon City

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