By Jody Hope Strogoff
STATE BILL COLORADO
Colorado lawmakers got extra schooling on Jan. 26 when about 100 CU Advocates — part of a larger booster group of supporters, alumni and students from the University of Colorado System — joined with members of the business community to share their legislative priorities and concern for state budget challenges.
The annual daylong program at the state Capitol featured a packed lesson plan designed to showcase student success stories and research achievements and at the same time allow education proponents the opportunity to forge relationships with key policy makers in the state. After “school” let out later that afternoon, participants congregated for an early evening study hall at the downtown office of Benson Mineral Group where CU President Bruce Benson hosted a reception in their honor.
CU Advocates, led by Michele McKinney, assistant vice president of advocacy and external relations along with Tanya Kelly-Bowry, vice president for government relations, heard from several current and former legislators, including a surprise appearance by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a former state representative from Yuma. Gardner is a graduate of CU Law School and spoke about the university’s academics and research programs.
Other speakers included former legislator Todd Saliman, who how handles budget and finance issues as CU’s chief numbers cruncher. Saliman focused on the continuing cuts to higher education in the state, estimated at about $20 million this year, and lodged his support for a shift of the hospital provider fee away from the state’s revenue column in order to alleviate budget pressure. The measure is likely to be a major point of contention this year as legislators try to once again balance the state budget, as mandated by law.
As Colorado’s third-largest employer, CU employs 30,000 people and has an annual budget of $3.55 billion, of which slightly more than 5 percent is derived from state funding.
CU’s emphasis on budget slashing closely follows the thinking of their president, who last year penned an article for the Wall Street Journal outlining the importance of a lean work force at the university. Benson said he cut 148 administrative staff positions and imposed stricter controls over other administrative policies in order to shore up a better financial forecast for CU. The tighter rein over budgetary affairs coincides, Benson added, with an increased focus on doubling its number of international students who pay the maximum amount of tuition without affecting caps on nonresident students.
Efficiencies also have aided in the university’s effort to limit tuition increases, according to officials. Most recently, increases averaged 3.4 percent across campuses, the lowest increases in nearly a decade. Additionally, they point out, CU internally generated some $140 million in financial aid in 2014, up from $86 million in 2008.
The program also included feedback from several legislators, including state Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, where CU maintains its largest campus. The longtime education proponent said he’s hopeful that a ballot measure this year will allow for some tinkering of the TABOR amendment, which he and others feel restricts their efforts for sound budget reform.
Heath said he and other leaders are hoping that the 2016 ballot will include some measure to change TABOR details that currently prevent the state from retaining all the revenue it collects. Such a ballot issue, Heath said, would not raise taxes.