Gov. John Hickenlooper is asking Colorado public schools to absorb almost all the cuts needed to balance the state budget next year - but the reductions won’t be nearly as painful as in years past. The governor released his spending proposal Tuesday afternoon. It’s only the first step in the process, though. The legislature has to approve the plan, and the biggest fight will probably come over the fate of a property-tax break for seniors. CPR’s Ben Markus has more.
Reporter Ben Markus: Standing at a podium in his office at the Capitol, Gov. John Hickenlooper said when he submitted his first budget earlier this year he warned that further cuts probably would be necessary.
John Hickenlooper: And that’s where we are today, demonstrating the unfortunate reality of that prediction
Reporter: Under Hickenlooper’s purposed budget, the biggest cuts -- yet again -- come to education. $90 million would be chopped from K-12 education, $60 million from higher education.
Hickenlooper: This budget really reflects the ongoing work of closing the structural budget gap and funding the numerous federal and state constitutional requirements.
Reporter: Especially Medicaid, which is outpacing all other state spending. Henry Sobanet is the governor’s budget director. He says enrollment in the joint state/federal health plan for the poor has increased 72-percent in the last six years.
State Budget Director Henry Sobanet: The weak economy means more people qualify for this program, it’s a federal entitlement, and so if people show up for the program we’re obligated to pay those bills.
Reporter: Sobanet says the state doesn’t want to cut Medicaid because
spending on that program is matched by the federal government. So, Hickenlooper and state lawmakers have to find a way to plug a $500 million hole in the state budget. The Democratic governor’s proposed plan would require changes to a few key state laws. One that riles Republicans is another proposed suspension of a tax break for senior homeowners who’ve lived in their houses at least 10 years. Hickenlooper says delaying the credit another year will save nearly $100 million in cuts elsewhere.
State Sen. Kent Lambert: Well it’s a 100-million in cuts to senior homeowners is what it is if that bill goes past.
Reporter: That’s Republican state Senator Kent Lambert. He says it’s not fair to make seniors bear that burden. Hickenlooper’s proposal would let a small number of poor seniors and disabled veterans keep the credit. And Democratic state Rep. Mark Ferrandino says the cuts have to come from somewhere.
State Rep. Mark Ferrandino: The governor submitted a balanced budget today. If the Republicans don’t want to do parts of it, they need to come up with the solutions of where they don’t want to cut. So do they want to cut another $90 million out of K-12 education?
Reporter: Jane Urschel, with the Colorado Association of School Boards, says that $90 million cut is better than previous budgets that slashed school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. She says a lot of the impact depends on whether voters approve Proposition 103 – a statewide tax increase meant to help fund schools. She spoke to us before the results of the vote were known.
Jane Urschel: If 103 does pass, then the whole ball game changes. There should not
have to be cuts to K-12 or possibly not even to higher ed, because the proposal is to give some distribution of those dollars to higher education.
Reporter: Even so, she says since 2008 nearly a billion dollars have already been chopped out of the state’s education budget. Janet Wyatt, chief legal officer for the Brighton School District, sees the damage those cuts have done on the ground.
Janet Wyatt, Brighton School District: The state does what they feel that they need to do. The impact on public education is huge, and it has ramifications that will last lifetimes.
Reporter: Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee will begin debating the governor’s spending plan this month. And the rest of the state legislature will get a say when the session starts in January.
[Photo: Colorado governor's office]