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As Colorado's Economy Improves, Lawmakers Wrangle Over The Budget

KUNC File Photo

There’s only one absolute requirement for Colorado lawmakers at the capitol. During the annual legislative session they must pass a budget.

With Colorado’s economy improving, state lawmakers now have some extra wiggle room in crafting a budget. Unlike previous years there won’t be massive cuts for programs like K-12 schools, and state contractors and public employees will see pay increases.

That good fiscal news hasn’t stopped the Senate from having an extensive debate.

Senator Pat Steadman (D-Denver) chairs the bipartisan joint budget committee, which has spent months writing what’s known as the ‘long bill.’ “There’s still a lot more work to do. But this year we’ve had the opportunity to make strategic investments in Colorado’s economy and Colorado’s people,” he said.

Steadman says there’s money to help prop up and strengthen the state’s child welfare system, schools, and mental health programs such as psychologists in state prisons.

“Returning revenue means a lot of things are going right. We’ve made some good decisions,” said Steadman.

Credit Bente Birkeland
The financial year 2013-14 Colorado budget 'long bill'

The roughly 8 billion dollar discretionary part of the budget pays for most state services. Education spending accounts for nearly half of that. Even as lawmakers are beginning to restore previous cuts, funding for K-12 schools is still about a billion dollars behind because of the recession.

Republicans offered an amendment to add back nearly $90 million. “This is a way to put more money into K through 12 education,” said Senator Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley). “Let’s do it for the kids.”

That amendment was defeated by the Democrats, saying that not only do they want more money for schools, but that the details of education funding should be debated as part of the separate school finance act, not the budget.

At the same time Renfroe tried to add more money for schools, he also said lawmakers should save more. “We shouldn’t be moving forward with spend, spend, spend especially at the expense of the jobs, jobs, jobs that we always talk about,” said Renfroe.

The floor debate is the only chance for most lawmakers to weigh in on the lengthy budget process. Last session when Republicans controlled the house, it passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. This year Democrats control both chambers and the Republican tone is much different.

“While some of the fundamentals are very good, we take exception to many parts of this budget,” said budget committee member Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs).

Lambert signaled that the budget wouldn’t get much GOP support. The legislature’s divisive fight over gun control appeared to drive Lambert’s decision. Democrats have passed controversial bills to limit high capacity magazines and require universal background checks for gun purchases. Lambert says a vote for the current budget allows Democratic overreach.

“We have set public policies that are of dubious legality,” said Lambert. “We have effectively banned gun ownership from the citizens of the state. I think we’ve gone too far in some of our actions this year and this budget enables those actions to proceed,” he said.

Wednesday’s debate largely centered on shifting around relatively small amounts of money. In one case, Republicans tried to cut the budget for the state’s energy office by 25 percent. The energy office faced a scathing audit several months ago, saying it didn’t account for millions of dollars. Senator Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs) says cutting funding would send a strong message.

“How can we keep giving money to an organization that has no ability to track how they spend that money, what the results are, and what the outcome is?” he said.

Democrats say they were also appalled by the audit, but voted against the amendment, saying the energy office is making strides. Despite Republican criticism over the budget Democratic senator John Kefalas of Fort Collins praised it for being prudent.

“We are putting money into rainy day funds, we are putting money into the state reserves, and helping those who are most vulnerable,” he said.

The state constitution requires lawmakers to pass a balanced budget each year. And many of the Senate amendments will likely be stripped when then house takes up the bill next week.

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