The legislative Joint Budget Committee Wednesday recommended an increase of about $30 million in state support of public colleges and universities, basically ratifying the proposal first made last November by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

But panel members left the door open to possibly increasing that amount if the March 18 state economic forecasts show a jump in state revenues.

“I was hoping we could do more for higher education,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “I was prepared to move that we add additional money” for state colleges and universities. But Levy added, “I’ll just wait” to see what the March revenue forecasts show.

The JBC is working its way through the long process known as “figure-setting,” during which the six committee members set 2013-14 spending for all state agencies. Those decisions then are rolled into the annual state budget bill, expected to be introduced toward the end of March.

It’s an open question whether the revenue forecasts will show there’s enough money to add to higher education spending. And there will be competition for extra money from other state programs.

The $30 million increase would be on top of the $513 million state colleges and universities are receiving in the current 2012-13 budget year. State funding provides only about a quarter of total higher education spending of just over $3 billion – the majority of revenue comes from tuition. The $30 million would provide only a 2.8 percent increase on a per-student basis.

The budget proposal also includes a $5.3 million addition to the current state financial aid pot of about $100 million.

Earlier this year, the JBC proposed – and the full legislature approved – a “bonus” of $9.3 million for colleges in the current budget year. Because of that, the net increase for next year is about $21 million.

The JBC also adjusted the staff recommendation to account for the expected $2.3 million increase in tuition revenue and a $900,000 projected cost for undocumented students entering college under the ASSET proposal, Senate Bill 13-033. Those costs were a major focus of House floor debate on that bill Tuesday (see story).

As has been the case in recent years, higher education figure-setting prompted committee member grousing about the future of higher education support.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, warned about the “defunding of higher education” and complained, as she often does, about the value of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “It would be fun to see what happens” if the commission were eliminated, she said.

Gerou and Levy also opposed a Department of Higher Education request for two new data-analysis employees. “I don’t really want to see this department grow too much,” said Levy, who is a reliable supporter of University of Colorado Boulder interests.

But the two were outvoted, and the committee agreed to the two new positions.

Higher education has taken significant budget hits in recent years as the legislature balanced the state budget in years of declining state revenue. According to data in the JBC staff recommendations, direct state support of colleges dropped 25 percent from 2008-09 to 2012-13. Calculated on support per resident student, state funding dropped 3 percent.

Overall average per-student spending has increased – but only because of tuition increases.

Trigger/school grades bill dies

The House Education Committee on Wednesday finished what it started on Monday and killed House Bill 13-1172, the Republican-sponsored measure that would have created a modest parent-trigger process for failing schools and also converted the state school rating system to an A-F structure.

The panel devoted two hours of testimony and discussion to the measure on Monday but delayed a vote because one member was sick. As expected, the committee’s seven-member Democratic majority killed the bill at the end of a 10-minute meeting and after listening to a final comment from prime sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. (See story about Monday hearing.)

“I really appreciate the fact that it received a fair hearing in the committee it was supposed to be in,” said Priola. He was referring to the fact that the bill originally was assigned to the House State Affairs Committee, which is used to kill bills regardless of their subject matter.

Some committee Democrats expressed polite support for the bill’s broad goal of empowering parents, and Republicans made arguments for the bill’s detailed provisions.

“I think it’s high time that we give a clear signal to parents on whether their schools are failing or succeeding,” said Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, who’s the senior Republican on the committee. She was referring to the bill’s proposal to replace the state’s somewhat bureaucratic labels for district and school quality levels with A-F grades.

California has a working parent trigger law, and several states use A-F labeling systems. Neither idea has gained much traction in Colorado and both have been opposed by mainline education interest groups and most legislative Democrats while receiving modest or no support from reform groups.