Government Relations: University has built foundation for next year
Federal stimulus funding softened the blow higher education suffered this year as Colorado lawmakers struggled to balance the state budget during one of the most contentious and difficult legislative sessions in years.
However, federal stimulus funding will run out in two years and the state's colleges and universities face a dire economic outlook if the nation does not recover quickly from the current economic downturn, experts say.
Faced with a severe state budget shortfall this year, the Colorado Legislature slashed $150 million from higher education, and the University of Colorado will have to absorb $50 million of those budget cuts per year between 2009 and 2011.
Despite the deep cuts, this year's state funding reductions could have been worse for all of higher education in Colorado, said Tanya Kelly-Bowry, vice president for government relations.
"It was an active legislative session," she said. "We went through three rounds of budget cuts."
In trying to balance the state budget, legislators considered cutting $300 million from higher education. After significant debate, however, the legislature ended up making additional cuts to other areas, including health care provider rates, K-12 education, corrections and state personnel.
Kelly-Bowry applauded the leadership of Gov. Bill Ritter and policymakers from both sides of the political aisle, who showed their commitment to higher education during budget-cutting discussions.
Also at stake during this year's legislative session were rules outlining how federal stimulus funds would be dispensed. Kelly-Bowry said several of the rules helped protect higher education because they prohibited states from reducing higher education funding below the 2006 level, or about $159 million for CU.
Colorado lawmakers explored a plan to garner additional monies through Pinnacol, a company that delivers workers compensation services, but decided the plan was not viable.
Kelly-Bowry explained that convincing lawmakers of the value of higher education was the key message she and other CU government relations personnel drove home at the statehouse this year. She lauded the work of her colleagues State Government Relations Director Kirsten Castleman and contract lobbyist Jerry Johnson.
At the start of this year's session, the CU Office of Government Relations sponsored CU Advocacy Day at the Colorado Capitol to highlight the university's economic impact and other positive contributions to Colorado, and its academic and research achievements. Regents and hundreds of alumni attended the all-day event at the Colorado Capitol, meeting with state lawmakers and university leadership.
Overall, this year's legislative session proved difficult for CU. The university lobbied for greater flexibility in setting tuition rates and for easing restrictions on cash-funded capital construction projects, but did not succeed in convincing lawmakers to support all of the provisions in the proposal.
Senate Bill 290, initially part of the flexibility package, was separated into its own bill, thanks in large part to Castleman's lobbying efforts, Kelly-Bowry said.
State lawmakers approved the bill, making it easier for the university to start and complete cash-funded capital construction projects without excessive state oversight.
Kelly-Bowry is confident that the university has built a foundation for next year's legislative session, when CU will again lobby for greater flexibility in solving some of its funding issues. At the request of Gov. Bill Ritter, CU President Bruce D. Benson will meet with the governor to discuss flexibility and how it would work, she said.
Despite the difficult economic times Colorado is facing, Kelly-Bowry said the university logged many successes this year. Lawmakers adopted bills that will:
- Ensure new employees enrolled in PERA can remain in the plan.
- Create an academic license for dentists employed by the university.
- Bring an additional $1 million to the Higher Education Research Authority.
In the win column, CU was also able to guard against further tobacco settlement cuts, although the payout from tobacco declined by $1.8 million to $17.1 million.
The university also restored proposed cuts to graduate financial aid, including $3.5 million to UC Denver, $1 million to CU-Boulder, and $800,000 to UCCS, and restored some $5 million in funding set aside for the university's biotechnology research efforts.
CU lobbied successfully against a bill that sought uniform standards for transferring community college credit, despite disparate programs on individual campuses. The university will work with a state lawmaker and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education over the summer to craft a more effective model, Kelly-Bowry said.
State government relations staff worked with the governor's office to identify ways of drawing greater federal funding for the university's three campuses, and worked closely with state lawmakers to pass waste-tire laws that will create new jobs.
Despite the difficult legislative session this year, Kelly-Bowry said the university was positioned to lobby for continued support, funding and reforms next year.
"It was a great opportunity to get our big issues on the table so we can have substantive reform during the next session," she said.