The past three years have brought Colorado some of its most unusual state budgets ever, a rollercoaster ride from major cuts during the early pandemic to a boom of federal and state revenues more recently.`
But as Gov. Jared Polis introduced his proposal for the next budget year, he said the track ahead is flattening out a bit.
“There is very little room in this budget for new programs,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.
The process of writing the budget is just beginning — state lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee have a large amount of say in the final package — but Polis’ presentation on Tuesday was a chance to show his priorities for how to spend this year’s limited resources.
The budget is still growing
Overall, the state’s general fund operating costs would grow by 7 percent, or about $1 billion, to about $14.7 billion in the fiscal year that starts next July 1. That’s an accomplishment, the governor argued, when inflation has driven up costs by more than 8 percent compared to last year.
“This budget saves money while investing in our future,” Polis said.
The state’s total general fund spending, including capital projects and TABOR refunds, is $16.7 billion. Billions more will come from federal funds and cash funds.
The state’s spending faces some tough restraints in the coming year. While the economy’s still growing, costs are rising, the state’s spending is limited by TABOR and the threat of a recession looms. And there will be no new bonanza of federal money coming, unlike recent years.
“It’s a big shift that we will face as a legislature,” said Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, or JBC. The pandemic recovery, combined with federal stimulus and infrastructure spending, gave lawmakers plenty to work with in recent years.
But, she added: “In this moment, that increased funding has now been invested, and we are back to our more constrained budgetary environment.”
Polis’ proposed budget sets aside a reserve of about 15 percent of general fund spending — a relatively high amount, compared to recent years, but one that is now required by law.
Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican member of the JBC, said that the spending growth is still too much, coming on top of years of faster budget expansion.
“Even 7 percent is too much,” she said. “We’re talking some pretty huge increases. I’m concerned about the growth of the state bureaucracy.”
Another public safety package
The state’s Department of Public Safety would see some of the largest growth, with its general fund support increasing by about 26 percent, or about $64 million.
One of the largest new spending items is to dedicate nearly $13 million over two years to preventing and prosecuting auto theft. Colorado’s high car theft rate — and what to do about it — has been a hot issue in this year’s attorney general’s race. The public safety package also includes a proposed $5 million per year to expand sober living recovery homes for people struggling with drug addiction.
State employees would get raises
State employees would get a 5 percent “across-the-board” salary increase for the year under Polis’ plans, with a minimum wage of $15.75 per hour.
Those raises won’t keep up with inflation, leaving state employees with less buying power. But the increase was agreed upon in negotiations with Colorado WINS, the state employees’ union.
“This historic raise is part of a larger package state employees won through bargaining that will improve benefits and help bring their overall compensation in line with similar industries,” wrote Hilary Glasglow, executive director of WINS, in an email.
Ransom, of the JBC, said she values state employees, but called for lawmakers to look more closely at the state’s 60,000-plus full-timers. “We never look back at prior years and the hiring that happened in prior years,” she said.
A boost for schools
The Department of Education would see its state funding grow by a half-billion dollars, which would translate to about a 9 percent increase for each student.
The state has long struggled to provide the amount of funding for schools that has been required since Amendment 23 was passed in 2000. This year’s increase would shrink that so-called “budget stabilization” gap to its lowest level in 14 years, Polis said.
“I think the governor’s proposal is a solid, good investment in public schools,” McCluskie said. She said that money would be important as students try to recover from pandemic disruptions and learning loss.
Democratic state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger said the change still might disappoint education advocates, who had hoped to eliminate the stabilization gap altogether. “I think the expectation was that we didn’t do it last year, but we should have done it this year,” she said.
Zenzinger, also a JBC member, wants to look further into how inflation is affecting school spending. But she was excited, she said, by the proposal’s “extraordinary” boost in special education funding in particular.
The state also will implement its universal pre-K program. Under a plan authorized by a recent state law, Colorado will pay for up to 10 hours of care per week for 4-year-olds. Polis’ budget would provide $335 million for that program.
The proposal also limits tuition increases for in-state students at state colleges and universities to 4 percent.
Firefighting, helicopters and investigators
Polis’ proposal sets aside about $38 million for new responses to wildfires, including $14 million for a Firehawk helicopter that has been high on the wishlist for rural lawmakers.
Also included in the wildfire package is $3.2 million for a statewide “fire data governance system” and to hire fire investigators — a change that addresses concerns raised by a CPR News investigation.
The wildfire package also includes millions for landscape mitigation and to help harden communities in the wildland-urban interface against fire, among other changes.
Some fees would return
Throughout his campaign for reelection, Polis has said that his administration has saved people money by reducing or delaying fees on everything from gas to driver's licenses.
That would only partially continue. The state would continue to waive fees for people starting businesses, which would save entrepreneurs a total of about $9 million. The budget also would reduce background check fees for people working in child care.
Polis also proposed funding another free-fare month for transit services next year.
But other costs would be allowed to return. There is no plan to further delay a fee that would add 2 cents to the purchase of each gallon of gas, which is set to kick in next March. (The money raised is meant to fund transportation projects.) And there’s no mention of a plan to continue holding driver's license fees steady.
However, Polis said he would discuss the ideas with lawmakers. “We’re really open to that,” he said.
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