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Will There Be A Tax Increase For Higher Education?

By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS

In order to bring higher education funding up to a competitive $1.5 billion, from its current $760 million, the state will need to ask voters to increase tax rates in at least two areas, according to a report released yesterday by a higher education planning commission.

“The current condition of higher education in Colorado is alarming and deteriorating,” state Jim Lyons and Dick Monfort, co-chairs of the governor’s Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, in the report. “Without changing the course our state is now following, we are headed to a future we don’t want. We need to invest more resources in higher education if we are to maintain and enhance its quality.”

The report recommends five areas of revenue enhancements, stating that at least two are required to meet the state’s goals:

» Restore income and sales tax rates to 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, generating $445 million — the current rates are 4.63 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively;

» Expand sales tax to specific services, generating $550 million;

» Implement a 1 percent surcharge on extraction, generating $150 million;

» Implement a 4.0 statewide mill levy, generating $350 million; and

» Implement a 4.0 mill levy in counties with an institution of higher education, generating $240 million.

The report also calls for reducing income and ethnic gaps in college admission; improve the quality of education across the entire educational pipeline, from preschool through systems of higher education; and increase accountability of the state’s higher education system, partly by enhancing the responsibilities of the Commission on Higher Education.

Gov. Bill Ritter yesterday said it will be necessary to go back to voters to enhance funding for higher education, adding that he would like to possibly include a conversation about repealing aspects of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which education advocates have targeted as a roadblock for increasing funding.

But Ritter said the funding problems associated with TABOR are not as immediate as the problems facing higher education.

“I’m still a person who thinks we should reform it, but it’s not as immediate as I would argue this problem is,” he said responding to a question inside his office at the Capitol yesterday. “If we can do both, reform TABOR and find a way to adequately fund higher-ed, we should, but if you want to ask me what I would consider to be the priority for the State of Colorado to remain competitive in the 21st century and make the biggest impact on the quality of lives of Coloradans, it would be this.”

There are no immediate plans or direction for heading to voters with a tax increase question. Dawn Taylor Owens, executive director of College In Colorado, said it is still up in the air whether advocates will ask the Legislature to refer a measure to voters, or whether there will be a citizen-initiated drive.

Education funding advocates asked the Legislature this year to refer to voters a ballot question that would have created a steady funding source for P-20 education. The move to send the proposal to voters was rejected by the Legislature.

Education advocates said in July that they will make a push to send the proposal to voters in 2011. Voters would be asked to allow lawmakers exemptions from TABOR to fund preschool, K-12 and higher education.

Colorado ranks 48th in the nation for higher education operating expenses per capita.

Lyons said at a news conference in Ritter’s office yesterday that ultimately the issue will come down to whether voters believe higher education is enough of a priority that they are willing to pay more for it.

“At the end of the day … this is their decision — what kind of state do you want to have? What kind of higher education system do you want to have? What are you willing to pay for?” Lyons said. “Because none of this comes free.”

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