Colorado Senate Passes Budget Despite Reservations From Many

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Colorado's budget handily passed the state Senate on March 29. It has bipartisan support and increased four percent compared to the previous year. In many ways, the debate was a microcosm of the entire legislative session thus far. It showed lawmakers working together, complex policy issues, partisan fights and political statements. It is balanced, as required by the state constitution, but reflects how Colorado lacks enough money to fully fund schools, health care and roads.

Many lawmakers are not happy with how the bill turned out.

"The budget is worked on for months and then most of the general assembly gets to really interact with it for a short week," said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D- Vail. "It is the only time that most of us get to say this is what we think the budget should be."

Lawmakers debated for 10 hours on March 28 over the more than 40 proposed amendments. Republicans wanted to cut the overall state budget, while Democrats tried to make cuts to private prisons and shift money into other priorities, such as renewable energy.

"I don't think this budget is good for rural Colorado," said Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.

One of his biggest sticking points is a $264 million cut to hospitals. The money is leveraged with federal funds so the overall reduction would be more than half a billion dollars.  He said many of the rural hospitals will be especially hard hit, and some could potentially close.

"You know we do everything here by crisis," he said. "And we kick the can down the road, kick the can down the road, til the problem becomes so severe that everybody hurts."

While finding it imperfect, Coram did back the budget, noting that another pending bill (Senate Bill 267) could add that money back into hospitals.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, on the other hand, cast a no vote.  

"The budget right now I feel like is really being balanced on backs of my constituents," she said. "When we have to make tough decisions the money has to come from somewhere, and most times it's easier to take money from areas where there are less votes in the chamber than where there are more."

The nonpartisan Joint Budget Committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, including Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, crafted the bill. She said it was one of the toughest budgets in several years because of rising health care costs and a drop in local property taxes requiring the state to pay more in school funding. 

"The solution we have built into this budget is less than ideal, far less than ideal," she said.

But others were OK with that.

"In a year where the dollars are a little bit tight, I always look forward to those years because I think it makes us make some strong decisions that actually prioritize, and I think that's a good thing," said Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton.

He said he was especially pleased the budget stripped $3 million dollars in incentives for the film industry.  "It's not our role to provide some kind of incentive to Hollywood movie makers," he said.

The Senate did make some changes to the original budget bill. Two Republicans, Sens. Coram and Larry Crowder of Alamosa, joined Democrats to fund a survey that tracks drug use, suicide and sexual activity, among other things, in youth.  

Coram and Crowder also sided with Democrats to back one of the governor's top priorities: using $16 million from marijuana taxes for transitional housing and wrap around services for the chronically homeless and people coming out of prison.

Governor John Hickenlooper talks about his budget priorities. The Senate passed a change he supported: using part of the marijuana tax money for a housing initiative for the chronically homeless.
Credit Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage
Governor John Hickenlooper talks about his budget priorities. The Senate passed a change he supported: using part of the marijuana tax money for a housing initiative for the chronically homeless.

"The vast majority of chronically homeless individuals have either drug or mental health issues," said Governor Hickenlooper. "I don't think it's unreasonable to look at some of the tax money derived from marijuana. Those real supportive services can make all the difference in the world in a person's life."

Opponents, including many Republicans, said voters intended the bulk of the marijuana money to go to schools. And while school children do receive more money in this budget, it's not enough to keep up with total program costs, causing some Democrats to vote against it.

Still, the budget eventually passed by a healthy margin with only five no votes. The $26.8 billion budget now goes to the House for consideration.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.