Gov. Ritter seeks mercy from feds

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter indicated this week that further cuts in the budget for the state’s higher education system could be on the way.

At a Monday press conference, Ritter said his office is seeking a waiver from the federal government’s requirement that Colorado maintain K-12 and higher education budgets at or above 2005-’06 levels to qualify for $760 million in stimulus dollars approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

Ritter said the waiver request doesn’t necessarily mean that education in Colorado will see additional cuts, but it would increase the state’s options as it tries to balance a budget deficit that is inching past $400 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Earlier this month, Ritter asked each state agency to compile proposals to trim 10 percent from their operating budgets.

“We’re going to attempt to get that waiver so we can have flexibility,” Ritter said.

During the 2009 legislative session, Senate Democrats attempted to raid reserve funds from Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-public insurance agency offering last-resort worker’s compensation coverage to businesses, in order to offset a $300 million deficit in the state budget. Without the Pinnacol funds, Senate Democrats said, the budget could be balanced only by going after higher education funding.

But Ritter disagreed, saying the state could not afford to take any additional funds from higher education because of the federal strings attached to the stimulus money requiring education funding levels to remain at 2005-’06 levels.

The budget eventually was balanced by diving deep into the Long Bill, making spending cuts and furloughing state employees.

Ritter’s attempt to seek a waiver was met with praise by some in the Legislature. Moderate Republican Rep. Don Marostica, Loveland, said he hopes the request can be honored.

“I hope it works out for the state,” said Marostica, a Joint Budget Committee member. “Although I think the state is really going to struggle to balance the budget in future fiscal years and flexibility is something that will help in that effort.”

Marostica said higher education is likely to see additional cuts because “it’s the easiest place to go” for budget drafters who are working to balance such large deficits in the state budget.

“The fat is out of the budget already,” Marostica said. “We’re starting to get into the tough muscle. And you can do away with some muscle and still be strong, but each year we are in this recession it’s going to be more difficult to cut without doing damage.”

Despite the requested waiver covering cuts to both K-12 and higher education, it’s unlikely that the K-12 system will see cuts of the same magnitude as those absorbed by the state universities and community colleges. Amendment 23 requires the state to increase base funding for K-12 education each year regardless of economic conditions or revenue collection.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs knows that reality as well as the state’s university leaders.

“We have huge cuts to make, and, quite frankly, very little options in where to make them,” Morse said.

“We can’t cut K-12 education. We can’t cut the entire prison system, and so what we are really left with is higher education,” Morse continued. “So, it makes sense for the governor to ask for the waiver because if we have to cut higher education, and we do, then we have to ask for the waiver because it gives Colorado the chance to not have a $900 million cut result in a multibillion-dollar reduction.”

When asked for reaction to Ritter’s announcement for a waiver, officials at the University of Colorado acknowledged the possibility they could see additional cuts in coming years.

“Governor Ritter has been a strong supporter of higher education and fully understands our contributions to the economic and social well-being of Colorado, so we know he didn’t make the request for a waiver lightly,” CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue said.

“Since higher education is one of the few discretionary portions of the state budget, we understand we are a target, as we have been in the past,” McConnellogue continued. “We trust that the governor and Legislature will treat us fairly because they know CU and higher education will help drive the state out of recession and are critical to our long-term prosperity.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com