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Gov. Jared Polis delivers his 2023 State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House chamber at the Colorado Capitol on January 17, 2023, in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post, Pool)

The panel of state lawmakers that drafts Colorado’s budget fined Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction $50,000 for raising tuition for most of its students by more than the legislature allowed last year, putting a spotlight on the annual tuition-increase debate between the Capitol and public institutions of higher education.

The General Assembly last year told the state’s colleges and universities that they couldn’t raise tuition for any in-state undergraduate students by more than 2%. But according to staff for the Joint Budget Committee, about 80% of CMU students saw a tuition increase of more than 3%.

The $50,000 fine, approved on a 5-1 vote, is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for CMU, which has a $100 million annual budget. But the JBC hopes it’s enough to prevent other public colleges and universities institutions from ignoring the legislature’s tuition guidelines in the future.

So far, the message doesn’t seem to have been received.

Colorado Mesa University, in a statement to The Sun, said it disagrees with the JBC’s finding that it violated the 2% tuition increase cap.

“The Joint Budget Committee has a difficult job, and we’ve appreciated the opportunity to work alongside them to try and address the significant funding disparities experienced by first-generation and low-income student serving institutions like CMU,” Kelsey Coleman, a spokeswoman for Mesa, said in a written statement. “That said, we respectfully disagree with the staff analysis of the facts. We cut our tuition for career and technical programs by some 40% and averaged a mere 1% overall increase, keeping us one of the most affordable universities anywhere in Colorado.”

JBC staff told lawmakers CMU, which serves as both a four-year institution and community college, is correct, but that the tuition directive included in the budget passed by the legislature last year, called a footnote, clearly said that “no undergraduate student with in-state classification will pay more tuition in fiscal year 2022-23 than 2% over what a student would have paid in fiscal year 2021-22 for the same credit hours and course of study.” There was no mention of an average.

“I don’t think we could (have been) any clearer in this footnote,” Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said Monday during a JBC meeting. “This is about students. It’s not about the average institution-wide percentage. This is about individual students. And there were individual students at Mesa that had an increase greater than what was allowed in this footnote.”

John Marshall, president of Colorado Mesa University speaks during a Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 19, 2022, at the Art Hotel in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The 2% tuition increase cap adopted by the legislature last year stemmed from negotiations between Gov. Jared Polis, who wanted to prevent any increase, and public colleges and universities, which wanted a 3% cap. How much public higher education institutions should be allowed to increase their tuition each year is a perennial debate in the legislature as it irons out the state budget.

The Colorado legislature provides funding to public colleges and universities through the state budget. The tradeoff is that it tells those institutions how much they can increase tuition, often allowing more latitude in years when lawmakers have less money to spare.

JBC staff recommended fining Colorado Mesa $75,000, but the panel decided on $50,000 to match a tuition-increase fine levied last year on Metropolitan State University of Denver for a similar violation.

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican, recommended the reduced fine, but said during the hearing that if any public college or university disobeys the legislature’s direction a second time, she will come for the “whole enchilada.”

Bridges put on record that he thinks any institution that violates the legislature’s limit on tuition increase in the future should have to pay up — and that the fine should be at least $75,000.

“I’ll just say the next time I see this, if I don’t really, really buy that it was just a complete and total misunderstanding, I want the enchilada,” he said. “I want all the soup.”

Bridges, in a statement to The Colorado Sun, said CMU’s actions “required a response from the JBC in our work to keep education affordable for all Coloradans.”

“Most jobs in Colorado require education beyond high school, which means we have a responsibility to keep higher education affordable in our state,” he said. “That’s why every year we limit how much public institutions can raise their tuition in legislation that clearly states, in plain language, that the limit applies to individual students and not to an institution-wide average.”

State Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, an Arapahoe County Republican, was the only JBC member to reject the fine. He said he wanted to give CMU the “benefit of the doubt.”

The fine, levied through a decreased appropriation to the school, still must be approved by the full legislature, which traditionally accepts the recommendations of the JBC.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....