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Colorado Budget Clears First Hurdle Of The Split Legislature

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0

The State Senate adopted the annual budget Thursday, approving $9.6 billion dollars for Colorado's general fund to pay for schools, parks, roads and prisons among other state programs. The budget gained unanimous support from Republicans who hold a one-seat majority in the chamber.

"I believe it has hit the proper balance," said Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel (R-Parker).

Passing a balanced budget is the only job lawmakers are technically required to do under the state constitution. It starts with a draft from the Governor, followed by months of meetings from the Joint Budget Committee to craft it. Following passage in the Senate, the budget moves on to the Colorado House.

While members of the Republican Party noted that it was the largest budget in state history that didn't dissuade the entire caucus from backing it. Senator Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), who usually votes against the budget, said he would be a 'yes' vote on all 591 pages.

"It includes funding for programs that I have argued against over the years, but I do recognize that it is our job to have a budget at the end of the process," Lundberg said.

Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the budget, with only three joining Republicans to support it. They complained that many of their values were not included in the process. Senator Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) said it's her first 'no' vote in 13 years.

"My vote is not because I lost an amendment," said Jahn. "I'm a big girl. You win some you lose some. This budget year, on this floor, in this part of the budget process, didn't allow for the comradery that I had come to know."

Other Democrats were upset that a number of their proposed amendments didn't pass, such as money for rural broadband and funds to continue a pay equity commission.

"Many good things got shut out," said Senate Minority Leader Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora). "The things that we fought for, for ordinary Coloradans, when we got shut out of an ability to participate in this year's budget, a lot of those ideas did too."

But if Democrats were shut out, so were Republicans. The Senate only adopted three relatively modest amendments to the budget after more than nine hours of debate. Two were bipartisan, and one was a Democratic proposal for rural economic development grants.

"I would certainly not argue that this has been so slanted, when you have a JBC that is divided equally between the two parties. Good heaven. That is the definition of bipartisan," said Senator Ellen Roberts (R-Durango).

During the debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers tried to pass dozens of amendments to change the budget. Republicans lost almost all of their own amendments too, including proposals to reduce money for childhood immunizations and to cut funds for state standardized tests for math and English in K-12 schools.

Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs) chastised Democrats for complaining that their party didn't have a voice. He said every amendment got a fair hearing. He also pointed out that the budget funds current law.

"So if you don't like what happened in the past, you aught to look back and see what you did that you didn't like," Cadman said.

For the last two years Democrats have held the majority in both chambers and the Governor's office. In addition to leadership changes at the statehouse, 2015 marks the first time in a decade that Colorado will be required to refund money to tax payers under the Tax Payers Bill of Rights. High revenue growth means refunds of nearly $190 million.

Passing the Republican held Senate, the budget heads to the Democratic controlled House where lawmakers in that chamber will get a chance to make tweaks to the budget. Any changes would then go to a conference committee, made up of the members of the Joint Budget Committee. The two chambers would then need to adopt the bill again.

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