Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of his cabinet hosted a town hall meeting on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Lory Student Center of Colorado State University.
The town hall was open to the public and included remarks from Gov. Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, as well as presentations on the state budget and higher education from the governor’s cabinet.
Colorado State University President Tony Frank introduced the governor, who began the town hall by discussing the growth of Fort Collins.
“Right now, there is such a magic about Fort Collins and what’s going in CSU that (is) not just being talked about in Colorado, it’s being talked around the country,” Gov. Hickenlooper said. “Jobs in Fort Collins rose 2.6 percent in August… so it’s one of … the fastest growing places in the entire state in terms of job creation. In August, the unemployment rate in Fort Collins was 2.9 percent… By measure, Fort Collins is doing great.”
Topics discussed during the town hall included the impact of state funding on higher education, the expansion of I-25 and alternative transportation.
“The other thing that we’re really focusing on just by necessity is the budget,” Gov. Hickenlooper said. “Our total budget is roughly $27 billion. … To make sure we balance this fiscal year, we’re probably going to have to go into our reserves even though we’re not in recession.”
According to Hickenlooper, the state constitution requires that the state allocate $242 million for education, despite the state only having $116 million dollars available.
Hickenlooper then introduced Lynne, who further discussed the state budget.
“Part of our goal is to demonstrate to you and to all the taxpayers that we are focused on efficiency and effectiveness … much of that has to do with strategic priorities,” Lynne said. “When it comes to higher education, we have set three strategic priorities: affordability, educating adults, and dealing with the attainment gap.”
Chief Finance Officer Diane Duffy for Colorado’s Department of Higher Education further elaborated the state government’s strategic points on higher education.
“In terms of cost, Colorado colleges and universities are very efficient… And when you look at costs and account for inflation, the cost for educating a student hasn’t gone up. It’s (the) financing that has accrued.” Duffy said. “There is just not much discretionary room in the budget for higher education. So, (we) call on you to think about and to understand more about what’s going on in the state budget and how it’s having an impact on higher education.”
Duffy said the state has doubled investment in student financial aid and quadrupled fundraising for scholarships.
“I don’t want … you to think, ‘The government is just sitting back doing nothing,’” Duffy said.
Next month, the Department of Higher Education will submit a revised form of CSU’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget with funding recommendations by the state government.
Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt then took the stage and discussed planned improvements to state highways and models of alternative transportation.
“We have a $237 million project that’s gonna start next year, to be completed two years from now, that’s going to widen I-25 … We’ll stop when the money runs out,” Bhatt said.
Bhatt discussed the viability of alternative forms of transportation such as ride-sharing services.
“The other challenge that we have for all of us across government, but particularly for the Department of Transportation, is the concept of connected and autonomous vehicles,” Bhatt said. “Uber did not exist 10 years ago. This new model of mobility on demand is re-shaping the way that the future is going to look.”
The governor and his cabinet then took questions from an audience that filled half of the LSC ballroom where the town hall was held.
Director Reggie Bicha of Department of Human Services and Director Larry Wolk of the Department of Public Health and Environment were asked about the growing issues of mental health and long-term sustainability in Colorado.
“Mental health is a critical issue all over our country and certainly in the state,” Bicha said. “I will never forget the day (when) Gov. Hickenlooper called me in the wake of the Aurora Theater shooting and said, ‘We simply have to do more for folks who are struggling with mental health issues.’”
Bicha said as a result of the shooting, the state invested about $20 million in crisis services, a 24/7 hotline and crisis mobile units across Colorado.
“We put in some $20 million in new investments in crisis services, a new hotline that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, crisis mobile units available in every corner of Colorado… but we have to find ways we can engage in folks.”
Duffy also took the opportunity to address the budgetary shortfalls of higher education.
“I think it’s difficult for people to understand all of these competing tensions that are in place that make it very, very difficult for folks to get a grasp of what’s going on,” Duffy said. “I would say (that) first of all is to educate yourself… There is a fiscal reality also and I think people are working hard every day to contain costs. There’s all kinds of initiatives going (from) online learning to less expensive ways of getting folks to and through college.”
Collegian reporter Gabriel Go can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rgabrielgo.