House Democrats Scuttle $30 million for Higher Ed

May 7, 2013

Despite the pleas of GOP lawmakers, Democrats elected not to set aside $30 million in tobacco funds for higher education

DENVER– With some irony, Rep. Daniel Kagan smoked a cigarette on the House floor as he defended removing a  more than $30 million transfer from state tobacco taxes to the Colorado College Opportunity Fund to offset the cost of higher education tuition for in-state students.

The increased taxes, approved under former Gov. Bill Ritter, were set to expire.  But the tax was extended with bipartisan support in the House in February because the monies were to be used for reducing in-state college tuition costs.

Over the past 10 years, the Colorado College Opportunity Fund has been increasingly deprived money by the legislature.  Higher education students used to pay one-third of in-state tuition but now pay more than two-thirds of the cost.

Colorado State University’s Board of Governors approved a 9 percent tuition hike on Friday for students attending the Fort Collins campus. The University of Colorado Board of Regents authorized an 8.7 percent tuition increase last month that will be effective next year.

Compounding the problem are potentially thousands of illegal immigrants who are now legally able to apply for in-state tuition, thanks to legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature this session and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The additional students will likely stretch state higher education subsidies even more thinly.

The issue arose when the House considered a Senate amendment to House Bill 1144 that scrapped funding of $28 million this year and $26.5 million in fiscal year 2014-2015 to the Colorado College Opportunity Fund that offsets tuition costs for eligible in-state students. Republicans argued against the Senate amendment; Democrats defended it.

“In the Senate’s judgment, it was not a good idea to earmark that (cigarette tax) revenue stream,” declared Kagan, (D-Cherry Hills Village) as he smoked an electronic cigarette on the House floor.

Kagan argued further that the money had been wrongfully “earmarked for pet projects,” referring to higher education students.

“Sir, you are smoking in the well. And I hope you are paying tax on that!” fumed Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen), who argued against stripping the tuition money.  “Let’s not impugn your colleagues as supporting ‘pet projects,’ and don’t smoke in the well.”

“The fact that you’re smoking in the (House) well is so rude, I don’t know if you’re doing that just to be rude. I don’t know that it’s allowed,” said Gerou.

“There are no rules for smoking!” declared House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who defended Kagan and admonished Gerou for her criticism.

In fact, smoking is prohibited in the state Capitol, but Kagan has not only smoked on the House floor, he’s previously puffed in committee hearings in the building.

Adding fuel to the fire, Kagan and his Democrat peers justified their decision to divert the $30 million dollars because it came from “dirty money” – taxes on tobacco.

“Is this the message that we want to send to our college students?” asked Rep. Lois Court(D-Denver) who defended Kagan’s move to remove monies from the higher education fund. “We are going to rely on people who pay tax for a habit that is harmful to them?”

“We’re going to rely on them to fund college education in this state – people who know that this is damaging their health?” Court asked. “I think that is really a bad message to send to our college students.”

Rep. Amy Stephens (R-Colorado Springs) scoffed and noted that Democrats have no moral problem using $40 million in marijuana taxes to fund K-12 education, but suddenly draw a line on using the cigarette taxes for higher education funding.

“Let’s not lecture each other about what we think is bad, bad, bad,” declared Stephens.

Former House Speaker Frank McNulty said that Kagan’s push to remove higher education funding was a breech of promise because HB 1144 had bipartisan support. McNulty, among other Republicans, had voted for the state budget with the mistaken belief that it would provide funds for college kids.

“We trusted the bipartisan compromise,” said McNulty of Highlands Ranch. He asked Kagan and Ferrandino if they had pushed for bipartisan support for the state budget bill with the secret knowledge that the fund for college tuition had been stripped.

“We all have families in our districts that are struggling, scrimping – single moms who are working three jobs – saving money so they can send their son or daughter to college,” said McNulty. “…You are making it harder for families to afford college.”

Last year, Kagan circulated a video tape of himself pleading for poor parents who have to work multiple jobs and long hours to provide for their families.

“There are people, here and now, today living in a state of poverty in this rich, wealthy state,” lamented Kagan then. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who work – not one job, not eight hours a day, but two (jobs), 12 or 13 hours a day.”

“Someone can work morning to night and still can’t be assured that they have a decent place to sleep, a decent school for their children to go to, and put a decent meal on the table… It’s true!” exclaimed Kagan.

“That is completely wrong in a rich country like this!”

According to some Republican peers, Kagan’s concern about hardworking families sending their children to “decent schools” rings hollow now when it comes to sending their children to state colleges.

Kagan opposed Republican legislators’ attempts to retain funding for in-state tuition. He said that amounts to everyone making a plea “for our particular pet projects.”

“Let’s let these funds go to where they are most needed in the opinion of the (House), the Senate and the opinion of the governor.”

Kagan did not respond to requests for comment.

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