By Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4)– Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing cutting $20 million in state funding for higher education to help close a big budget shortfall.

The state provides $648 million to the 10 public colleges and universities right now.

“When we looked at making the cuts we thought we should try to share that pain,” Hickenlooper told the state Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.

He says the state has a $373 million shortfall next fiscal year and is limited in where it can cut. The Medicaid population is expected to grow nearly five percent and K-12 school funding will increase 2.6 percent – which doesn’t even keep up with enrollment plus inflation.

The rebates under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights – or TABOR – will also eat up $289 million.

“With all these tradeoffs, higher education doesn’t have a constitutional protection. It doesn’t have a federal mandate. We’ve seen this before and we’ll probably see it again,” says Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director.

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education says Colorado ranks 49th in country in higher education funding. It says 15 years ago, the state provided about two thirds the cost of college and students payed a third. Today, it’s reversed.

“The institutions will be looking at this very hard in terms of what they need to do to make up these lost dollars. We know some of them will look at inefficiencies, some may have to look at programmatic changes and certainly tuition will always be on the table,” says Kachina Weaver, chief policy officer for the commission.

University of Colorado (credit: CBS)

University of Colorado (credit: CBS)

In Colorado, tuition is among the most affordable in the country. At the University of Colorado, tuition and fees run about $14,000 a year for an average arts and science major. That is nearly half what the University of Michigan costs and less than almost all of CU’s peer institutions.

The Commission on Higher Education is also lowering costs by allowing students to earn college credit while still in high school and even graduate with an Associate Degree. But, as the state cuts continue year after year, there is talk about privatizing higher ed.

Sobanet says, “We’re not able to support higher education in the same way we do now unless something changes in the available amount of money in the general fund.”

The governor has proposed reducing a hospital fee that counts toward the TABOR limit but can’t be used to pay the tax rebates. That would free up about a $100 million for things like higher education. But, Republicans oppose it. The legislature has the final say on the budget and it will be the biggest battle in the upcoming session.

Shaun Boyd is CBS4’s political specialist. She’s a veteran reporter with more than 25 years of experience. Follow her on Twitter @cbs4shaun.

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