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Cuts in higher education budget big mistake

By John Stencel

I rarely use this column to write about decisions that have already been sealed, but I feel so strongly about this issue that I will make an exception.

In mid-June, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union was notified by Colorado State University (CSU) Cooperative Extension Service Director Milan Rewerts of the allocation of budget cuts to the service. Just over $1.6 million, or 18 percent of state funding has been cut from the service’s budget. The cuts are effective July 1.

The layoffs affect 64 employees, both at the county and state office or campus levels. At least one county agricultural research station will be closed and many station and extension officer personnel positions will be reduced to part time or eliminated. CSU classroom instructor positions will be eliminated, reducing class offerings and making classes larger. Reductions will be made in the service’s operating budget, as well.

The mission of the Cooperative Extension Service is to be the conduit for informing and educating the public on research conducted at our Agricultural Experiment Stations. They help us apply the research and development projects funded by our tax dollars. Seems like a pretty important job. In fact, a lot of farmers, ranchers, rural communities and even suburbanites depend on this service. Can you freeze cheese? What are the worms on the tree in my yard and how can I get rid of them? Is there a safer and more ecologically sound way to eliminate the pests that destroy crops and irritate farm animals? Are there better dryland cropping systems that will work in our region? These are all questions that have been answered or are in the process of being answered by the Agricultural Experiment Stations.

The Agricultural Experiment Station at CSU must reduce its expenditures by 18 percent, $1.62 million beginning July 1, 2003. These budget reductions are permanent decreases in funding so long-term changes are required in programs located in academic college and departments at CSU in Ft. Collins, Colo., as well as at off-campus research centers.

Cooperative Extension also operates the 4-H program. Countless Americans credit 4-H with teaching them life skills, responsibility, leadership, and many other valuable lessons. It is a program that is particularly important for rural youth, as many of the urban-type programs may not be available in rural communities.

With rural economies still lagging behind urban ones, the loss of this funding is regretful. Production agriculture is very much in need of technology, which will enable it to increase its profit margins and improve the quality of life in rural communities.

The budget cuts to the Cooperative Extension Service and the Agricultural Experiment Station had to be made due to the huge shortfall in the Colorado state budget – more than $8 billion had to be slashed from state departments and our higher education system. The TABOR and Gallagher amendments, which do not allow for an increase in tax rates without a change to the Constitution compound the problem. These amendments tied the hands of Colorado legislators and have resulted in deep cuts in most every government entity. At one time, policy makers were even discussing the elimination of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The worst part is that this year’s cuts are only part of the story.

In 2002, the state cut 11 percent of its allocation from the Cooperative Extension Service budget, bringing the 2002-03 state budget reduction to nearly 30 percent. Due to the TABOR amendment, the new baseline for spending is the reduced level. In other words, when the economy strengthens, and sales tax revenues increase, the state will not be able to keep or spend the revenues above these drastically reduced levels.

A recently-released study by the Bell Policy Center titled “Ten Years of TABOR, A Study of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” states: “While most states operate with some tax or spending limits, TABOR is the most restrictive limitation in the country.” The study goes on the explain that some state-run programs, such as education, Medicaid and others with federal or state mandates on spending, have not been cut, resulting in other programs having to disproportionately share the budget reductions.

Until 2002, Colorado’s economy boom sheltered these programs from the true effect of the TABOR and Gallagher amendments. Now, we will have to pay the piper.

I really do not believe the majority of Colorado voters who cast their ballots in favor of this tax restricting ballots were aware of the potential impact. Many are still not aware of the cuts and what will happen to future budgets. I certainly hope Coloradoans heed the warning and push for legislative action to lift these restrictions. Otherwise, in a few years higher education may only be available to the elite, and we could have tollbooths on all our roads.