Desks in empty classroom

The Joint Budget Committee made its single largest cut in the midst of trying to find $2 billion in savings for the 2020-21 budget by voting to slash 58% of the general fund support for the state's public colleges and universities.

Lawmakers voted to go much farther than JBC staff had been suggesting. At the beginning of the budget-cutting exercise on May 4, the staff had presented 10% and 20% across-the-board cuts, and on Tuesday, they offered information on what a 30% general fund cut, or $246.8 million, would look like.

Even though staff analyst Amanda Bickel did not recommend it, that was "the level of cut that may be required for budget balancing," she said.

Bickel told the JBC that colleges and universities within the Department of Higher Education are among the few state agencies that could sustain such cuts; given that those funds represent a small portion of most state college and university budgets, which rely more heavily on tuition revenue. 

Then Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, made the motion to cut 58%, a figure not contained in any of Bickel's recommendations. He was asked several times to repeat his motion. "And how much is that?" asked Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican.

Moreno and Bickel appeared to scramble to figure out just how much 58% would represent, and then came up with $493.2 million. The cut would be distributed proportionately to the state's governing boards and stand-alone colleges and universities. 

The silence was deafening. But no one objected or said it was too much. The motion passed unanimously.

Reaction on social media was swift and shocked. 

"This is devastating. I'm speechless," tweeted Jen Greenfield, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver.

Peg Perl, the election chief for Arapahoe County and a mom to a "rising senior" (a person who will be a high school senior in the fall) just tweeted "gulp."

In reaction to the decision, Bickel suggested allowing the institutions, particularly community colleges and Metropolitan State University of Denver, flexibility in tuition increases. Tuition for 2020-21 had been capped at a 3% increase. However, the JBC voted to keep the tuition hikes at that same 3%.

The JBC also looked again at financial aid, which is 20% of the general fund sent to higher education. That's made up of three pots: need-based, merit and work-study aid. The committee had already voted to eliminate the $5 million for merit-based aid, but Tuesday spared need-based and work-study funding.

They cut funding for an opioid awareness campaign and on Tuesday, funds for cannabis research. On May 7, the JBC had already cut scholarship funds, teacher development and educator loan forgiveness grants. 

And while higher ed is in line for coronavirus relief dollars, those funds can only be used to address direct impacts from the virus, such as online learning and sanitation efforts. 

A U.S. Treasury memo, issued April 22, provided guidance to states on how CARES Act money should be spent. It states that "funds may not be used to fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute. Although a broad range of uses is allowed, revenue replacement is not a permissible use of Fund payments." The CARES Act money can be used for COVID-19 related expenses that "were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27," meaning the current fiscal year, and for expenses incurred between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 30, 2020. 

Higher education has been a reliable piggy bank for budget cuts in past recessions; in 2009, institutions dodged some of the pain with stimulus funds, but it left Colorado 48th in the nation for state funding for higher education.

In 2000, the state picked up about 68% of the cost of a college education. Tuition covered the rest. After two multi-year recessions, after 9/11 and the Great Recession, that number has flipped, with students and parents covering two-thirds of the cost and the state covering the rest. One estimate said that tuition at state colleges and universities increased about 60% between 2008 and 2018. 

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