Lawmakers Divided Over School Meal Funds

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3min 45sec

Colorado is facing budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but the first big fiscal fight this session comes down to a much smaller number. Republicans and Democrats are tangling over thirty cents: the cost Colorado pays for a school breakfast.

Every weekday morning, tens of thousands of kids across Colorado stand in line in school cafeterias. The ones from the poorest families eat for free; the federal government picks up their tab. Those from slightly better off families get reduced-price breakfasts. The federal government pays for all but 30 cents. Four years ago, Colorado lawmakers decided the state would cover the difference for reduced-price breakfasts. They call the program Start Smart.

This year Start Smart is projected to run out of money by the end of March. If lawmakers don’t find more funding, thousands of kids be paying thirty cents a breakfast for the rest of the school year.

Leo Lesh runs the Denver Public Schools' Nutrition program. He says this could be a real burden for poor families.

LESH: "Thirty cents is a lot of money. I mean, it may not be to people like you and me and the legislature, but to poor working families, it’s huge."

Here’s how free breakfasts came to be on the chopping block: last week, staff at the state legislature asked lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee to approve $127,000 in extra funding for the program. The budget committee is split equally between the parties. Democrats voted for the extra money, Republicans voted against it. The deadlocked vote means the request automatically failed.

Now Democratic lawmakers like Representative Cherylin Peniston of Adams county say they’ll fight to get that money.

PENISTON: "Something as simple and cost effective as providing breakfast before class may mean the difference between Colorado students who are able to reach their full potential and those who struggle to concentrate in the classroom."

Peniston is sponsoring a bill that will use money the program didn’t spend in past years to keep Start Smart funded through the rest of this year.

PENISTON: "The state already has the money. All we want to do is make sure those dollars are used the way they are intended. Every penny matters to these Colorado families. Making a young child pay even thirty cents a day will likely result in a big financial hit for many families."

If the program does run out of money, low-income families would have to pay around ten dollars for their child to eat breakfast for the rest of the school year.

When Republicans on the budget committee voted against extra money for Start Smart, they were quoted in the Denver Post saying that thirty cents a meal isn’t too much to ask of families, especially during bad budget times. But on Monday, Republican budget committee member Cheri Gerou said saving money wasn’t the main reason she voted no.

GEROU: "It’s not that we don’t want to take care of children. We care about children. We just want to take care of the math."

Gerou says the number of children enrolled in the program and how far the extra money would go don’t add up for her. If the budget staff can answer those questions, she says she would consider granting the extra funding. But both she and her Republican colleague on the committee, Representative Jon Becker, say they're looking for even the smallest cost savings this year.

BECKER: "We have to be prudent in making sure we are looking at everything for the citizens of Colorado in making sure we get this economy back on track. I think there’s going to be a lot of touch decisions in the JBC this year, as you all know and I think we’re ready to make those and we’re ready to make them as a group."

This is the first major split between the budget committee’s Republicans and Democrats so far this session. It’s the first time in years the committee’s evenly divided between the two parties. People at the Capitol are watching this fight closely, trying to figure out what it may mean for things to come. The JBC will have to come to some kind of agreement on the big issues, or risk deadlocking over the state’s budget.