Flexibility legislation topped full CU agenda at 2010 Legislature

Bill aimed at boosting efficiency, cutting costs among the victories for higher education
By Staff

The Colorado General Assembly's 2010 session opened in January with leadership at the University of Colorado eager to advance legislation designed to give the university and other institutions of higher education greater flexibility within state oversight. After taking all session to advance through several meetings, the bill aimed at boosting efficiency and cutting costs earned approval of lawmakers before the end of the session on May 12. The bill is scheduled to be signed by the governor on June 9.

Flexibility legislation was the top priority of CU leaders and lobbyists, but was far from the only potential law that merited interest from the university community. Budget-related issues especially drew attention, given diminished state revenue and the threat of deeper cuts to higher education institutions' budgets. CU lobbyists successfully staved off disproportionate cuts to the university.

"Special thanks to our state legislators on both sides of the political aisle and the governor's office for working with us to have an extremely successful legislative session for the University of Colorado," said Tanya Kelly-Bowry, vice president of Government Relations. "I would also like to recognize and thank President Bruce Benson, and Chancellors Shockley-Zalabak, DiStefano and Wilson for their very persistent efforts down at the Capitol. We look forward to the new challenges that lie ahead for higher education in the coming years."

Here's a look back at some highlights of the recently ended legislative session at the Capitol:

Senate Bill 3, higher education flexibility: The long journey for flexibility legislation began during the 2009 session, which ended before the bill could be passed. The delay enabled leadership from CU to work out details with lawmakers, resulting in more thorough legislation. It's expected to be signed by the governor in the coming days.

The legislation is designed to:

  1. Allow higher education institutions to increase tuition for residents and out-of-state students by up to 9 percent annually without seeking state approval. Any larger increase must be approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE); in those instances, colleges and universities would be required to submit a five-year plan to the CCHE and also show how they would provide increased financial aid to students.
  2. Remove international students from the statutorily required limit on nonresident students enrolled in colleges, allowing for a larger population of students from other countries. It also would require that all in-state students who pass requirements be admitted to the higher education system. For CU, at least 55 percent of incoming freshmen must be in-state students, and at least two-thirds of the students on each campus must be in-state students. The total number of foreign students enrolled at each CU campus must not exceed 12 percent of total enrollment at the campus.
  3. Give institutions greater flexibility regarding capital construction projects, purchasing contracts and other financial matters. Currently, universities and colleges must funnel most matters through the state for approval.
  4. Require institutions to provide detailed plans on how governing boards would ensure accessibility and affordability for low- and middle-income students, how financial aid would be distributed and ways to improve student retention.

Senate Bill 1, eliminating PERA's unfunded liability. Under the new law, signed by the governor on Feb. 23, more than 90,000 retirees who take part in the Public Employees Retirement Association pension fund will receive no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) this year. In upcoming years, retirees will receive no more than a 2 percent increase, depending on inflation and the funding of the plan. In a related move, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 146 into law as part of the effort to balance the state budget. The law decreases the employer contribution rate in the state and judicial divisions of PERA by 2.5 percent and increases the member contribution rate by 2.5 percent for one year.

Senate Bill 58, eligibility for nursing teacher loan forgiveness: The program provides up to $20,000 in loan reimbursement for someone who teaches nursing in a higher-education institution for a minimum of five years. The new law, signed by Gov. Ritter on April 20, only requires that a nursing faculty member be teaching half-time, rather than the old requirement of full-time, in order to take advantage of the loan forgiveness. Nursing programs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the Anschutz Medical Campus may promote such an incentive as a recruiting tool when hiring new faculty.

House Bill 1427, continued health plan coverage for higher education employees. The bill, awaiting the governor's signature, resolves legal questions that had been raised about the university's authority to offer alternatives to health plans offered by the state's Department of Personnel and Administration (DPA). Some 74 percent of CU classified employees take part in CU health plans; nearly all others are in the state's Kaiser plan. Had CU's authority to offer plans been challenged, nearly 5,000 university employees and dependents might have been prohibited from participating in their current plan of choice. The bill clarifies that institutions of higher education may continue to offer health plans to classified employees, in addition to or in lieu of DPA plans, as long as those plans are comparable to or better than a DPA plan.

House Bill 1181, Department of Personnel and Administration cleanup: As first proposed, a bill designed as simple cleanup for the state's Department of Personnel and Administration included provisions that would have conflicted with the aims of flexibility legislation. CU lobbyists campaigned successfully for amendments to the legislation that protected SB 3. It's awaiting the governor's signature.

House Bill 1376, Long Appropriations Bill. CU lobbyists worked to eliminate an amendment to the state's primary budget document that would have cut $400,000 in funding to CU and Colorado State University. It was signed by the governor on April 29.

House Bill 1208, higher ed statewide transfer agreements. Awaiting the governor's signature, it requires the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and institutions to complete at least 14 transfer agreements for degrees.

For more details, see the Office of Government Relations website.