Colo. budget written, heads for debate in House
DENVER (AP) — A Colorado budget with better-than-expected funding for education, colleges and seniors will be introduced in the House next week, where lawmakers will vote on a proposed $8 billion spending plan.
Budget writers finalized the budget Friday after some tension in recent months over whether to fund a property tax break for seniors and a debate over benefits for state employees and payroll reductions to Colorado agencies.
The aptly named "Long Bill" marks the first time in recent years that K-12 education is not facing any cuts. The often-slashed higher education department is faring better, too, even though it's still facing a cut of just under $6 million. Both departments have been reduced by several hundred million dollars during the last five years. The budget is scheduled to be introduced Wednesday.
Schools comprise about 40 percent of the budget and colleges about 9 percent. The bulk of the rest of the budget goes to prisons and human services, including mandatory spending on Medicaid, an entitlement more people are eligible for because of recent economic struggles.
But an improving state economy has meant more tax revenue for the state, and the lawmakers learned Monday that they had about $200 million to spend after the budgeting they'd completed so far, including a $100 million property tax break for some seniors that many thought could gridlock the budget. Democrats and state economists had warned the state couldn't afford it, and Republicans had insisted on keeping it. Both parties eliminated it in the past to balance the budget.
"I think I was prepared for bad news," said Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, a member of the Joint Budget Committee. "Everyone was surprised and relieved that the news was as good as it was."
The budget also includes a $15.8 million contribution to the rising costs of state employees' health, dental and life benefits. The contribution was part of a deal to also cut state agencies' payrolls, initially by 2 percent. Lawmakers later agreed to a 1 percent cut, but exempted prisons, youth corrections, public safety and emergency personnel that work around the clock. The judicial department's cut was 0.5 percent.
No layoffs are expected, but concerns over whether the state agency cuts would lead to job loss temporarily deadlocked lawmakers, with Democrats lobbying to lower the department cuts and keep the contribution to employee benefits.
Republican Rep. Jon Becker, a member of the JBC, said while there are some parts lawmakers dislike in the budget, this is the time where the budget writers stick together for what he called their "labor of love."
"There's something for everybody to love and hate in the budget," he said.
The budget also includes the closure of a solitary confinement prison in southern Colorado, about $2 million for drug treatment program, and lawmakers will not rely on about $30 million of severance taxes — money that goes to communities affected by energy development. There's also $3 million for film-production incentives and $9.1 million in pension and dental assistance for seniors.