Higher Ed Transparency Bill Advances

February 28, 2012

DENVER, CO – Colorado’s transparency push took one more step toward inclusion as Rep. B.J. Nikkel (R-Loveland), steered HB 1252’s call for creating an online database for financial information at the state’s higher education institutions past Democratic concerns about cost and inclusivity.

The bill passed in bipartisan fashion 10-3, as three Democrats joined their Republican committee counterparts. The House Education Committee referred the measure to the Committee on Appropriations. Nikkel accepted a friendly amendment that expanded the scope of the measure to include all state institutions that take public funding in the form of College Opportunity Fund (COF) benefits.

The higher education database is modeled after Nikkel’s database legislation for the Colorado Department of Transportation, passed in 2011. The CDOT transparency initiative received unanimous support in both houses. In 2009, Nikkel initiated landmark transparency legislation putting the state’s “checkbook” online, earning her the moniker “Miss Transparency.”

“Colorado’s students and families deserve to know where their money is going,” said Nikkel after the passage of the bill. “With universities continuing to ask for higher tuition rates each year, creating a user-friendly interface that allows students and families to measure the value of their education is a perfectly reasonable expectation.”

Nikkel expects the bill to pass out of Appropriations and the House, despite Democratic colleagues who expressed concerns about the bill’s costs to the institutions and the scope and inclusivity of the bill’s text. Several Democrats pressed her on who, precisely, was included in the definition of “professor,” and were also eager to see other information included in the database that might serve to increase transparency while also clarifying various class workloads, research responsibilities, and other more complex factors that define a university employee’s job description.

“The bill is a continuation of transparency efforts that I began back in 2009, when I ran the Colorado Taxpayer Transparency Act,” said Nikkel. But with separate computer systems for the departments, “it excluded both the Colorado Department of Transportation and higher education.” According to Nikkel, this bill would help to close the information loophole on transparency and accountability at the state level.

As for cost, a point of hesitation for Democrats on the committee, Nikkel was certain a solution could be found. Estimates cited by Democrats in the attached fiscal note ranged from $250,000 to $499,000 for up-front costs of implementation, to additional yearly maintenance costs of $90,000 to $307,000 per institution.

“The CDOT transparency website was done within existing resources,” said Nikkel. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I know that’s the case for the Colorado Department of Transportation,” she argued.

“We have some very smart people that work in these universities, some of the top research universities in the United States. And I would surely think that there would be, if they had a will to actually make this information available to the public, that there would be a way to do it that wouldn’t cost as much money as you see on this fiscal note,” Nikkel added.

“We have a duty as the legislature and part of state government to make that information readily available for the taxpayers,” said Nikkel. University expenses and professors’ salaries would be made public, though individual names will be made anonymous.

“I think that’s fair for students and families,” said Nikkel, who believes the bill will arm taxpayers with information to make informed decisions on education choice for their children and also to assess universities’ requests for tuition increases.

University of Colorado Regent Jim Geddes, speaking on behalf of the bill as an individual and not the entire Board of Regents, responded to a series of questions from Rep. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood), about costs surrounding the bill and Geddes’ fiduciary responsibility “to the CU system.”

“My fiduciary responsibility is to the citizens of the state, and to the students in particular, not to the institution,” responded Geddes. “I think that the efficiencies that will result from open transparency will more than pay for the expense of being transparent.”

Jim Cole, representing the Colorado School of Mines, told the committee that CSM opposed the bill on cost grounds and found the five-day update requirement onerous. “For a small school, that requires some level of work,” said Cole. “That has to be paid for.”

Cole noted the school’s graduation and placement success as mitigating factors. “The value proposition at the School of Mines is very good. So to add this kind of extra work in terms of accountability we think is unnecessary at a school like ours,” Cole concluded.

Cole also warned of “unintended consequences” of transparency that might reveal sensitive or proprietary information that might jeopardize confidential research projects critical to the school.

Jessica Peck, founder of the Open Government Institute, disagreed with the analysis provided by Cole and several Democratic legislators on the committee, testifying on behalf of transparency itself, while remaining neutral on the specifics of HB 1252.

“Why should we assume that beyond any sort of state personnel rules or confidentiality requirements, that our professors, who hold one of the most sacred roles in our educational institutions, should not face the same disclosure requirements that anybody else in any other reasonable corporation or governmental enterprise would?” Peck asked.

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