Powerful budget committee warms to Hickenlooper’s spending plan

Photo: Colorado state Capitol building Sept 2014 c
The Colorado state Capitol building outside of downtown Denver, Colo.

Colorado’s powerful legislative budget committee gave a mostly warm reception to the governor’s proposed spending plan for next fiscal year.

Gov. John Hickenlooper officially presented his proposal to the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday morning.

With state revenues increasing, the budget puts more money into education and social services, including funding for 130 new child welfare caseworkers.

But the improving economic picture has also triggered several fiscal mandates, including a major increase in transportation spending and refunds to taxpayers.

“I think there are going to be a number of consequences of what is essentially very good news: our economy is rebounding more rapidly than probably any of us could have imagined four years ago,” Hickenlooper told the committee.

Hickenlooper’s proposal includes $102.6 million in new money for transportation and $136.6 million in refunds, as required by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Not everyone is pleased with the new spending mandates.

K-12 education spending is still more than $800 million less than what’s required by Amendment 23, which voters approved in 2000. For Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver there’s an urgent need to make up that difference.

“So before we start issuing refunds to taxpayers, is there more logic perhaps in making whole our budget and doing right by our public schools?” said Steadman.

However, Steadman’s idea would need the backing of the governor and a majority of lawmakers before it could even make it on the ballot. Hickenlooper said Wednesday what he heard on the campaign trail suggests the measure wouldn’t pass.

“There is a serious resistance in the public to providing more funding to different state agencies unless they can be more fully assured that that money will go to serve a specific purpose that they believe in,” said Hickenlooper.

When it comes to the budget in general, the budget committee’s new Republican chairman says he’s mostly pleased with what the governor is proposing.

“There’s some big issues we have to wrestle with this year, but I don’t see any show stoppers at this point,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, a Republican from Colorado Springs, after the hearing.

Lambert says he is keeping his eye on Congress. With Republicans taking control of the U.S. Senate, there may be changes in how much money Colorado gets from the federal government.