Budget Breakdown – The Public Conversation

March 10, 2011

In good years, state budgeting is generally something only lawmakers and policy wonks care about.  But with Colorado facing a massive shortfall and groups moving to put a tax increase on the ballot, the budget is becoming a bigger part of the public conversation. 

Find other stories from CPR's Budget Breakdown series here

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Kelly Johnson with the group Great Education Colorado wasn’t sure what to expect when she started planning a budget forum and asked to use the theatre at Lakewood High School.

JOHNSON:  "I was a little concerned when we put this together and asked Lakewood for such a large venue, because you never want it feel like a pin able to drop and be heard."

She needn’t have worried.  This past Tuesday evening, several hundred people filled the theatre’s seats.  Against a backdrop left over from a production of the musical Chicago, presenters told the story almost as dramatic -- what’s happened to the state budget.

HEDGES:  "All we’re looking at now is just the General Fund, that’s just income and sales tax dollars, adjusted for inflation and population.  It’s actually fallen per capita 1.2% over the last ten years."

Carol Hedges runs the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, which is working on an initiative to create a graduated income tax and raise billions of new dollars for the state.  On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Independence Institute’s Penn Pfiffer urged the audience to look not for more money, but for more cuts.

PFIFFNER:  "The problem that I think we need to address is structure.  We have to change the structure of how we deliver education.  We have to change the structure of how we deliver government."

The Independence Institute has a blueprint for cutting enough government services to make up the budget hole.  For those who came to the budget forum, though, no answer seemed quite right.  Standing around afterward, Arvada resident Renee Nelson sounded frustrated.

NELSON: "What else is out there other than people continuing to say, “We need to be innovative.”  Well that’s great, but what is it, specifically?  I’m tired of, everybody else, bring us your answers, because we’re out of money. Period.  And I want some options."

There was one answer to these questions that Nelson is sure she doesn’t want -- a tax increase.

NELSON: "We don’t have any extra money.  The gas is going up, everything, everyone is asking for another piece of the piece.  there’s no pie left.  So no, that’s not an option."

But many in the audience believe a tax increase is the only option to preserve institutions they believe in.  Lots of teachers came to the forum, interested in learning the larger context for the cuts their districts face -- and to get more ammunition when they try to convince people more money is needed.  Kay Evans teaches at Arvada High School.

EVANS: "We have to be advocates for our school system.  We’re the voice of our students and our kids and we have to get out there and grassroots level get something going, get people to believe in the schools."

The one thing everyone at the meeting seemed to agree on is they’re not done learning, about what the state faces and what can be done.  Leaving the meeting, Golden city councilman Bill Fisher said he’s been having a lot of conversations like that these days.

FISHER:  "You know, I would say, a couple years ago, people didn’t have much of an opinion about it. Now they’re starting to ask the right questions I think. And they throw around all sorts of ideas, but it indicates they think it’s not a sustainable direction that we currently have."

Where all these questions will lead is anyone’s guess.  And while the final decision on the budget comes down to 100 lawmakers and the governor, they’re all likely to hear plenty from the public along the way.

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