Photo by Ruth Heide
Colorado Department of Higher Education Executive Director David Skaggs addresses a town hall meeting at Adams State College on Thursday.
By RUTH HEIDE
ALAMOSA — Encouraging taxpayers to value higher education enough to pay increased taxes for it was a recurring topic with Colorado Department of Higher Education Executive Director David Skaggs during a town hall meeting at Adams State College in Alamosa on Thursday.
Skaggs said voters might face a ballot issue to help fund higher education as early as 2008 or 2009.
Adams State College Trustee Tim Bachicha asked, “What do we do to get some people from both sides of the aisle to stand up and say we need to raise taxes?” He asked Skaggs why it was so difficult to get someone to stand up and “sell it to the public to raise taxes to support higher education,” to say TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) prohibits raising taxes without going to the electorate for a vote but higher education provides a long-term benefit to the state so the voters should be asked to support it. “Is there no one there with that kind of gumption to go to the people and say ‘this is a really important thing’?” Bachicha asked.
Skaggs said, “I think there are some people willing to step up to the plate on this.” He said some leaders in the state are already loading up some statistical ammunition to persuade the voters of the importance of supporting higher education. For example, he said research has shown that the annual difference in paychecks between a high school graduate and college graduate is about $20,000 resulting in a lifetime difference of about $1 million.
“The political reality is Colorado is an electorate that is wary of increasing taxes for whatever good reason,” Skaggs said. He added that there were those who say that a tax increase proposal was just the result of having a Democrat as governor and Democratic leadership in the legislature. He said several Republicans are also promoting a tax increase for higher education.
However, Skaggs said the number of key leaders needed to reach a critical mass of support, and the timing for a ballot issue, have not yet come together. He said if the higher education issue went to a vote in 2008, it might not have the financial support it needs from businesses helping to pay for the Democratic convention in Denver. Also, he said many people believe next year will be the health care year and there is probably only room for one major item at a time, “and that’s probably going to beat us out for ballot position.” However, the voter turn out would be greater in a presidential election year like 2008, he said.
Skaggs told Adams State College faculty and administration, “Ritter cares deeply about what you all do and what is going on in higher education ... My challenge is not persuading the governor that this is important ... He understands that in his gut.”
Skaggs said higher education felt the brunt of budget cuts during the state’s financial decline early on in this decade. “We really got nailed and are still digging out of the hole,” he said. “We are $1 billion down cumulatively from where we would have been with a normal inflationary growth with the higher education budget we had at the beginning of the decade, and that’s real money.”
Capital improvement funds were hit even harder than operating, he said.
Skaggs said although Colorado ranks eighth in per capita income it is 48th in state support per student.
“You all at Adams State College and in this community are painfully aware that you have been asked to do more with less for the last several years,” Skaggs said. “I am trying to turn this around going forward that we want to do more with more. Our goal is to get to that national peer average over several years.”
For ASC specifically, the average total revenue per student at ASC’s peer institutions is about $10,780 while ASC’s is $4,832 or 45 percent of its peers. “So that’s the gap for ASC that we want to close over the next while,” Skaggs said. “It’s a long way to go and we are determined to get there.”
ASC Provost Michael Mumper said he has been asked to develop strategic plans for the college but has received conflicting messages that he can either expect steady growth in the next 10 years or expect a reduction in 2 years. Skaggs said, “I would do two plans if I were you.”