House Debates State Budget

The state House is debating next year’s $19 billion budget proposal today. It’s unlikely much will change with the vast bulk of the spending plan, but lawmakers plan to introduce dozens of amendments to fund specific projects they feel have been overlooked.

Among their proposals, House Democrats want to use money earmarked to develop a new standardized test to instead fund Small Business Development Centers. They’re also proposing shifting some money from implementing new teacher effectiveness rules to provide stipends to teachers who get board certification. Several amendments would also try to increase state inspections of oil and gas wells.

Not all budget amendments have to do with money. Lawmakers can also introduce footnotes, which are non-binding statements of principal. Democratic Representative Dan Pabon is leading the charge for Democrats. His proposals would provide legislative oversight of any money the Attorney General spends fighting the Federal Affordable Care Act; urge the Secretary of State Scott Gessler to do everything in his power to enfranchise voters; and ban any state money from funding erectile dysfunction drugs.

That last proposal drew hoots and applause from fellow Democrats when it was unveiled at a caucus meeting. Pabon says it’s a response to conservative attacks on women’s health care funding. Republicans are less likely to find his ideas amusing.

Lots of Argument, Few Changes

While the budget provides lawmakers with a stage to debate the issues they care about, few of these amendments are likely to make it into the budget in the end.

Anything that passes in the House will go to the Senate, which can either agree, or strip it off. Since Republicans and Democrats each control a chamber, they’re unlikely to agree much. Amendments that only pass one chamber will go to a conference committee made up of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which traditionally opposes any changes to its budget.

“This is the funny thing about all the drama and twitter about the budget,” says JBC member Claire Levy, a Democrat, “when it’s all said and done, it will change very, very little.”

Schools Hold Steady

The budget Levy and other members of the bipartisan committee hashed out over the last six months is a reflection of Colorado’s improving economic picture. After years of massive cuts during the recession, most departments will see their budgets stay about the same next year.

That’s good news for Colorado schools, which will see their per-pupil funding rate hold steady. However, that amount is still hundreds of dollars less than it was in 2009, and a thousand dollars below what the state would likely be spending, if there hadn’t been a recession.

More than a thousand teachers and other education supporters rallied at the state Capitol Wednesday morning to remind state officials of the cuts they’ve already absorbed.

While the budget is generally holding steady, it actually contains around a thousand fewer full-time government positions. Budget committee chairwoman Cheri Gerou, a Republican, says that doesn’t mean there will be layoffs. She says budget staffers this year tracked down longstanding errors, and in some cases, departments had positions on the books they didn’t need. In other situations their needs have been undercounted.

“There have been several areas where they have said, it’s actually costing us more dollars to run that department than what we’ve been reporting,” Gerou said, “So let’s just be honest about it.”

Although the budget eliminates a number of these “ghost” jobs, some individual departments will grow. The Justice Department is getting more than 90 new positions, including more officers to monitor sex offenders, more trainers to help people who represent themselves in court, and two new judges.

Prisons in the Crosshairs

This year’s budget fight will also be a chance to preview some developing issues, first and foremost the state Corrections budget. An auxiliary bill will create a study of how best to use Colorado’s prison beds. Over the past few years, the number of people in the state’s prisons has dropped by more than 2,000, but overall the Corrections budget has continued to increase.

The Department says a lot of that increase is due to inflation and rising benefit costs for employees, but some Republicans have that money directly in their sights.

Assistant House Majority Leader Mark Waller says his party contributed to the growth of the prison budget by passing tough-on-crime legislation in the past. But for several years he’s been sponsoring legislation to reduce that population, and he wants to start seeing some savings. He says that means consolidating beds, which leads to one thing in the end.

“You have to cut prisons.” Waller says, “And that’s hard to do, when it’s the economic livelihood of a community is that prison, it’s hard to make those cuts.”

Possibly just as hard will be deciding which prison feels that cut. Democrats argue that private prison beds should be the first to go, leaving the private prison industry as just a backup to the state system. Republicans say that private prisons have already borne their share of prison reductions in recent years and that the state should look toward a public facility.

The House is expected to take it's final vote on the state budget on Thursday, sending it over to the Senate for its own lengthly debate.

[Photo: CPR/MVerlee]