DENVER, Colorado " State officials are considering several proposals to raise money for public colleges and universities as they weigh their chances of gaining support from voters.
David Skaggs, executive director of state Department of Higher Education, said Monday that overall funding for Colorado's colleges and universities still lags about $750 million below the national average and even steady increases within the state's rigid budget system won't be enough to get it on par with other states.
He said he hasn't taken a position on some of the proposals floated, including raising the severance tax, but he thinks leaders will eventually have to ask voters for more money.
Skaggs, a former congressman, said it might be better to wait until next year to go to the polls because tight presidential and Congressional races could drive up the costs for television advertising and because the economy could be headed for a downturn. He said focus groups on higher education being conducted with the help of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce starting this week will help determine what the next steps will be.
"This a campaign. We have to sell them a product " higher education " and convince them it's worth paying for," Skaggs told a group of Colorado State University students visiting the Capitol.
Bill Ray, a spokesman for the Denver chamber, said the group believes there is a problem with higher education funding but said it's premature to talk about launching campaign for a funding increase.
"We feel it's important to ask Coloradans what they think and see what that tells us," Ray said.
Funding for higher education was slashed following the 2001 recession since it is one of the few areas lawmakers can cut because constitutional and federal restrictions protect spending for Medicaid, kindergarten through 12th grade schools and prisons. In 2005, voters agreed to allow the state to keep tax surpluses over five years in order to help make up for cuts in higher education as well as in health care and primary education.
Despite the increase, Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, said that in order to catch up Colorado would have to increase funding by 7.5 percent a year for the next decade and increase tuition 15 percent and other states would have to only make inflationary increases.
Buescher, the chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said he's working on a bill that would take some of the expected increase in federal mineral lease payments and set it aside for higher education. It's not a tax increase and wouldn't have to get voter approval.
Currently, natural gas producers pay a 12.5 percent tax to the federal government, which in turn gives 6.25 percent to Colorado, amounting to about $165 million a year. About half pays for kindergarten through 12th grade schools with the rest going to communities impacted by drilling and water conservation. Buescher said he would like to take half of any new revenue above that for higher education but programs now getting federal lease money wouldn't lose any.
He said lawmakers are also working on a proposal to increase the severance tax and use part of it to pay for higher education, something which they would have to refer to voters since it's a tax increase. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have been working on an initiative to increase the severance tax to pay for the impacts of energy development and boost renewable energy.
State Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, has also proposed Las Vegas-style, no-limit gambling which he said would bring in more money for colleges and universities as well as tourism promotion " another proposal that would need voter approval.