Colorado’s Budget Clears The House, Next Stop? Debate In The State Senate

Colorado lawmakers are only required to do one thing during their annual legislative session: pass a balanced budget. After several days of discussion, members of the Democratic-controlled House did just that. It had bipartisan support with four Western Slope Republicans and one Colorado Springs Republican joining the Democratic majority.

"It looked like the task would be daunting, but I think we just ended up with a really harmonic convergence of budget forecasts and certain events that occurred that allowed us to not to face as many dramatic cuts as we thought we were going to have to face," said Representative Dave Young (D-Greeley), a member of the bi-partisan joint budget committee that wrote the budget bill.

The process of writing the annual budget is months in the making – beginning with a request from the governor in the fall. In the end there wasn't much wiggle room and it did require some cuts. The state reduced a hospital provider fee payment by $73 million and lowered a budget transfer by $50 million to pay for transportation.

"There's an understanding that it's a tight budget year, they're getting $150 million of general fund money," Young said.

Many lawmakers wanted even more money for transportation and weren't pleased with the reduction. Republicans offered up several amendments during the debate. House minority leader Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland) sponsored one change that would have put more cash into roads — if the state's revenue forecast improves.

"This gives you the option to vote for over $64 million that would actually make a difference," DelGrosso said. "Here's your chance to say 'if there is extra money, what are your priorities?'"

That amendment didn't pass. Neither did 30 or so other amendments that were introduced by both parties. Many were simply political statements. Members of the Republican Party tried to eliminate money for a program that provides long acting reversible contraceptives to low income young women. State Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) wanted to strip funding from the governor's mansion and instead use it to hire more oil and gas inspectors.

"Namaste, namaste, everyone, I'm not trying to pick a fight with the governor's office," he said.

Salazar does hope to get his attention, adding that many in his district feel Gov. John Hickenlooper is too pro-hydraulic fracturing. Especially given his past comments about drinking fracking fluid.

"My constituents are upset that every time we try to do something to protect the environment and their homes that we have the governor's office undercutting what they're feeling, they feel minimized by his statements," Salazar said.

Most members of his party, along with the entire GOP, did not support the change. Count budget committee member Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) among them.

"We have the most stringent inspection standards of any state that we know of. I don't think more inspectors are your answer."

Funding for public schools and colleges makes up the largest portion of the state's roughly $8.5 billion discretionary general fund budget. Lawmakers avoided cuts to higher education and put nearly $300 million of general fund back into K-12 schools, although they didn't make a dent in restoring previous public school budget cuts.

"A lot of people are calling it a miracle budget. I think it's a good budget, but I don't know about a miracle budget," said House Education Committee member, Rep. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City).

He said he's glad the state put money into schools.

"But that being said we're still not keeping up with our increasing enrollment in our public schools, how much it costs. There are huge inequities within our current school finance act between rural districts and urban districts. Some schools only have $7,000 per pupil, others have $15,000 per pupil," said Moreno.

The full House gave the budget committee members a standing ovation for all of their hard work; yet it wasn't enough to get most of the Republicans to vote for the so called "long bill."

"I think they did a lot better job than even I thought they were going to do," said House minority leader DelGrosso - who was still frustrated that transportation didn't receive a larger share of the pie and that the budget would expand new workforce development initiatives.

"I still think there are things we could do better and we are funding things that may or may not be good programs."

The Republican-controlled Senate now gets a chance to consider the budget and make changes. Interestingly, one of the biggest debates between the two parties actually isn't in the budget. It's a separate bill on whether the state should use an accounting measure to remove a fee that hospitals pay from counting toward state revenue under the Tax Payer's Bill of Rights. Removing the money would prevent TABOR refunds from going to voters in the coming years, and keep more funds in the state's coffers.

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