New faces, familiar concerns for CU as Legislature convenes

Lobbyists focusing on budget during crucial year for state funding

Many names and faces in leadership positions at the state Capitol have changed since the conclusion of the 2010 legislative session. Something that hasn't changed is that University of Colorado lobbyists will have to work again this year to defend and maintain funding for CU and higher education.

"The biggest issue for this year is budget, budget, budget," said Tanya Kelly-Bowry, vice president for state and federal government relations. "We'll be trying to hold onto the general fund money that higher education has."

State lawmakers convened today to begin their four-month 2011 session.

"With new leadership in the House and a new governor, it's going to be a very interesting and unique session," Kelly-Bowry said.

Following November's elections, about a third of the body consists of newcomers to the Capitol; control of the House has shifted from Democrats to Republicans, who now hold a one-seat edge.

"We're walking into the unknown in terms of personal dynamics – how the new stakeholders will work together," Kelly-Bowry said. "So far, in terms of some of the bills being put forward, there seems to be a great effort by both parties demonstrating bipartisanship. That bodes well for CU and higher education."

Among the last recommendations of outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter was that higher education's funding be held at its $550 million level and not be subject to further cuts. State funding for higher education has dropped dramatically in recent years. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 11, has until Feb. 1 to submit his budget proposal, which may or may not reflect the amount Ritter had suggested.

Kelly-Bowry noted that CU President Bruce D. Benson, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kelly Fox and other CU leadership worked in recent months to forge a coalition with governing boards of colleges and universities throughout the state. The result is an agreement among the vast majority of higher education institutions indicating how the $550 million could be divided. Should funding drop significantly below that amount, the agreement would need to be renegotiated.

Communication between leadership at CU and at the state began long before today's official launch of the session. Benson has met with key lawmakers in recent months to discuss the university's priorities for the year. Campus leaders Phil DiStefano (Boulder), Pam Shockley-Zalabak (Colorado Springs), Jerry Wartgow (downtown Denver) and Lilly Marks (Anschutz Medical Campus) also have met with lawmakers representing their communities to stress local concerns.

"The Board of Regents also have been doing outreach with key legislators and forging their own relationships with our key policymakers, getting the word out about CU's priorities," Kelly-Bowry said. "This year, I'm looking forward to cultivating many new CU champions. But, certainly, the funding situation is dire."

Depending on what a March revenue forecast has in store, state budget leaders have warned that as much as $1.1 billion may need to be trimmed from the next budget.

Because of the focus on funding, CU's government relations team is seeking only a limited amount of legislation. Bills being initiated by the university:

  • Cleanup to higher education flexibility legislation: Last year's Senate Bill 3 enabled improved efficiency at CU and other institutions. Over the summer, Benson asked campus leadership to search for other areas where similar provisions could be made. Capital construction is one such area where changes to current state procedures could improve efficiency.
  • Clarification of the University of Colorado Hospital Board composition: This would specify that the leader of the Anschutz Medical Campus will chair the hospital's board. M. Roy Wilson had served as chancellor for the Anschutz and downtown Denver campuses; after he stepped down, Wartgow was named chancellor of UC Denver, with Marks named vice president for health affairs and executive vice chancellor for the Anschutz Medical Campus, which means she would chair the board if the change is adopted.

Other bills being monitored:

  • Public safety communication: The Higher Education Police Chiefs Association is seeking to eliminate barriers in information sharing between agencies pertaining to student safety, specifically during emergencies.
  • Student fees: The Legislative Audit Committee is looking to increase transparency and accountability pertaining to student fees at higher education institutions.

While the slate is relatively light to begin, that could change as the session progresses. Kirsten (Castleman) Schuchman, senior director of state relations, said that because so many lawmakers and the governor are new to their posts, they may take longer than established leaders to introduce bills. And though many are new to the Capitol, they'll be familiar to CU's leaders.

"The president, chancellors and government relations team spent the summer and fall meeting with candidates and seated legislators, even before the elections," Schuchman said. "So even though a third of the Legislature is new, we have well-established relationships with the legislators and the new governor.

"And as the session begins, we're working to get in front of the education and health committees so we can educate the new members on CU and what we do for Colorado."

One of the devices aimed at spreading the message: CU Advocacy Day at the Capitol, Jan. 28, when faculty, students, leaders and other friends and ambassadors will speak to lawmakers on behalf of the university.