Anxious About Tuesday

With conservatives flexing muscles, midterm election ballot measures could further limit funds for cash-strapped colleges, and spread affirmative action ban to Arizona.
October 29, 2010

Higher education officials in some states are on tenterhooks about next week’s midterm elections, when voters will decide whether to infuse some much-needed cash into colleges and universities -- or, in some cases, to make it harder for states to do so.

Several of the 160 ballot initiatives to be voted on nationwide will affect colleges and universities. The public has generally backed spending on higher education in recent elections, approving ballot measures that funded bonds for colleges and maintained income taxes. Similar measures this year in states such as Alaska, Colorado and Massachusetts could maintain or cut current state funding, or give colleges a boost they say is crucial.

But heavy anti-tax campaigning and the anticipated record turnout of voters who characterize themselves as conservatives -- including a mobilized, anti-tax Tea Party -- have some college officials concerned that the climate for such measures is far from ideal.

Among other ballot measures with implications for higher education, one in Arizona -- where educators are still reeling from the controversial immigration law – could (after other failed attempts) make the state the fifth to ban affirmative action in college admissions and employment (more on that below).

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week, Republicans outnumber Democrats among likely voters by 50 to 43 percent, and 35 percent of likely voters are Tea Party supporters. And even though conservatives tend to keep spending limited -- the Tea Party brainchild Contract From America flat-out calls for ending tax increases -- that doesn’t necessarily mean the ballot measures’ fates are sealed.

“The conservative base has been energized, and I think that we will see that play out in the polls with regard to the election of a number of Republican candidates,” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. However, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily draw a real strong correlation between the election of conservative candidates and how the same electorate is going to vote on state ballot referendums.”

For instance, in special elections earlier this year, voters in both the Republican state of Arizona and the Democratic state of Oregon approved measures that raised taxes. Part of that money assists in funding higher education systems and preventing more budget cuts at colleges. “I think generically, we all like to pay lower taxes, but when it hits home, people can draw a correlation to the state public services that they want and they want to keep,” Hurley said. Either way, colleges will be waiting for next week in "nervous anticipation," he said.

Here are some of the notable measures that will appear on state ballots Tuesday:

Arizona’s Proposition 107 would amend the state Constitution to prohibit affirmative action in public education, employment and contracting. It bans the preferential treatment of or discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. The measure is generating attention across the country.

On Tuesday, the National Association of Scholars published a letter urging Arizonans to support the measure. Jennifer Gratz of the American Civil Rights Coalition expects they will, and says other states will continue to follow suit. "You can't say the American people aren't a fair people that aren't willing to look at individuals based on their merit and not their skin color or their sex," she said, pointing to the elections of President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. "It's time the government caught up."

But State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema says the measure would have a "widespread effect," restricting federal and private funding on which the state's many public universities and community colleges depend to offer support programs aimed at female students or students of color. She said that although the measure would not affect admissions -- quotas based on race are already illegal -- the measure's supporters are spreading that misconception. "Research shows that people support these programs," she said. If the measure were to pass, she said, "the state would have some difficult choices to make."

Hurley said that the initiative will probably pass -- putting Arizona in the ranks of California, Washington, Michigan and, most recently, Nebraska -- but that its impact will be “pretty negligible” because colleges can find alternative ways to recruit diverse students and employees. “Certainly the ban on affirmative action creates a social conservative statement,” Hurley said, “but in terms of having a significant impact on admission, enrollment and staffing in that state, I just don’t see that happening."

(Note: This article has been updated to correct an error.)

Colorado’s Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 would cut various taxes and tighten restrictions on government borrowing and taxing. According to the Colorado Legislative Council, if approved the measures would cut state funding by $2.1 billion, leaving only $38 million in the general fund for areas such as higher education, corrections, and judicial and human services. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education passed a resolution in August opposing all three measures. The vote comes just as the Colorado Department of Higher Education is preparing to release a strategic plan that recommends more focus on affordability, access, quality and accountability, and laments that the state's colleges are among the lowest in the nation in terms of state funding. Kim Poast, deputy director of the department and project manager for its strategic plan, said the measures would alter the funding landscape even further, for the worse. Poast said there has been substantial opposition to the measures, but voters still might lack awareness of the funding at stake. “In many people’s minds, particularly in Colorado, people think they pay too much in taxes, so any relief from that is really what they’re looking for,” she said. “If you’re the average citizen you don’t necessarily [recognize the implications] because what you see is, tax relief now.”

Massachusetts' Question 1 would remove the sales tax on alcohol and Question 3 would halve the sales and use tax rate, from 6.24 percent to 3 percent. Cape Cod Community College President Kathleen Schatzberg wrote in the Cape Cod Times on Wednesday that the passage of Question 3, which would cut state revenue by billions of dollars, would have “devastating consequences” for higher education. Massachusetts is already facing a budget gap of $2 billion.

Washington State’s Initiative 1098 would impose a new income tax on individuals with incomes of more than $200,000, with some revenue going toward expanding access to higher education. According to an Oct. 15 Washington Poll report, 51 percent of voters oppose the measure and 42 percent support it. Matt A. Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor and director of the Washington Poll, said support for the measure has plummeted from about 58 percent in May because of an effective anti-initiative campaign. He suspects the measure will fail because of a widespread misconception that has people “extremely worried” that the tax would trickle down to the less wealthy, even though for that to happen the legislature would have to write an entirely new bill. Barreto said it’s the “least likely event to occur ever in Washington State, for the legislature to spread that to the middle class.”

Alaska’s Bonding Proposition B would issue up to $397.2 million in general obligation bonds for libraries, education and educational research facilities. It's the biggest borrowing plan for education in state history and the university system’s chancellors, president and other leaders have donated money in support of the measure, which faces little organized opposition, according to The Associated Press. Among other things, the measure would fund a life sciences center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a sports arena at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and a housing, career and technical center at Kenai Peninsula College.

New Mexico’s Bond Question D would approve up to $155.5 million in general obligation bonds to make capital improvements and acquisitions for colleges and special schools.

Rhode Island’s Question 2 would allow the state to fund $78 million in bonds for higher education facilities. The developments would include a new chemistry building at the University of Rhode Island, and renovation and construction of an addition to the Art Center at Rhode Island College.

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