Gov. Introduces ‘Bitter Choices’ in Budget

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Tuesday governor John Hickenlooper introduced his proposed budget for next year to the state legislature and it’s a doozy. Half a billion dollars in cuts to education, to prisons, to state parks and state employee salaries.

For an indepth view of the issues facing the state budget, check out the stories in our series, Budget Breakdown


Sitting in front of the legislature’s budget committee, Governor Hickenlooper told them no one runs for office to make the kinds of cuts he’d come to propose.

HICKENLOOPER: "When you’re dealing with these bitter choices between education and healthcare, between water projects and public safety, each makes almost inhuman demands."

All those areas -- and more -- will see cuts under the proposed budget. The biggest ax looms over education. Public schools will lose $497 a pupil, dropping per student funding from $6,823 this year to $6,326 next year. Colleges and universities will have to make dow with $877 dollars less a student.

Also on the chopping block, Fort Lyons prison in southeastern Colorado, the youth psychiatric beds in Fort Logan in Denver, services at four state parks, and more than 250 state jobs. Spending cuts make up 90% of the balancing plan.

HICKENLOOPER: "Given the expectations around state revenue, these are unavoidable. The one-time sources of federal funds and other cash sources that have propped up the General Fund in recent years quite simply aren’t available."

This is why the fiscal year that starts in July will be so much worse than even the depths of recession. For the past two years as state tax revenues plummeted there were hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars there to cushion the blow. Those are gone. Lawmakers also used lots of one-time fixes to balance thing out. They grabbed any excess money saved up in state funds. They changed paydays to push expenses into the next year. Now, Hickenlooper says, Colorado must face the bottom line.

HICKENLOOPER: "t is not possible for the state to continue spending money that it does not have, just like no family and no business can continue spending money that it does not have."

As heavy-hearted as Hickenlooper sounded delivering his budget, Republicans on the committee seemed pretty happy to hear it. For years, conservative legislators have complained the state needed to make more cuts instead of using one-time fixes. El Paso County Senator Kent Lambert told Hickenlooper it’s time to really look at what services the state can provide.

LAMBERT: "I think you’ve started not just with a realistic view, but with a longer term view of where Colorado should be going as a state. And I applaud you and your staff for starting that process."

If Republicans were open to Hickenlooper’s proposals, Democrats on the budget committee gave his plan a much chillier reception.

STEADMAN: "These are times that require difficult choices. However, there are some things here that I really question whether or not they are feasible or wise."

Senator Pat Steadman of Denver is especially concerned about a proposal to cut state pay by 4.5% next year -- saying it asks more of state workers than they should have to bear. Instead, Steadman and other Democrats on the committee want the legislature to consider other options.

STEADMAN: "With all these things that are unpalatable or difficult to swallow, it makes you wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have an appetite for a revenue increase."

Governor Hickenlooper and Republican lawmakers have said repeatedly they don’t think voters will go for a tax increase. If that’s true, it leaves schools, especially, facing some hard years ahead. Jane Urschel with the Colorado Association of School Boards says districts may have to lay off thousands of employees.

URSCHEL: "They feel kind of like they’re on the black ice right now of school finance and of funding -- because they don’t know how far they’re going to fall or how hard they’re going to hit. And they are just going to try to protect the classroom as much as they can."

Hickenlooper says he’s sympathetic; but with 41 percent of the state budget in education, there’s just no place else to go for cuts.

HICKENLOOPER: "Why did John Dillinger rob banks? It’s where the money is."

Voters did pass Amendment 23 -- which was supposed to protect school money from cuts. But the governor’s office believes the constitution only safeguards one part of education funding. The rest is vulnerable. Hickenlooper acknowledged cutting schools won’t be a popular solution.

HICKENLOOPER: "People are going to go around and say, well, he’s anti-education or he doesn’t care about low income folks on Medicaid. I care about all those things, but at a certain point, you run out of options."

From here, the budget goes into the hands of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee. If they don’t like the governor’s proposed cuts, they’ll have to try to find some options of their own.