DENVER – Faced with a significant budget shortfall, Colorado lawmakers are poised to cut roughly $100 million from the current state budget and pull $60 million from reserves as part of a package of spending bills introduced this week.
The spending cuts are driven by a slowdown in the state’s economic growth – led in part by tanking oil prices – and represent a recent departure for the usual mid-year budget adjustments.
“We are saving money this year,” said Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican budget writer. “That’s highly unusual. We are usually bumping way up.”
The 18 spending bills will arrive in the Democratic-controlled House for debate Wednesday before moving to the Republican-led Senate for final approval next week.
The potential budget deficit is estimated north of $200 million in legislative economic forecasts, but lawmakers adopted the governor’s office projection that pegged the shortfall at $160 million.
What made the balancing act easier is a lower-than-expected student enrollment count and higher-than-expected local property taxes that reduced the state-share of the school budget by $134 million.
The scenario allowed lawmakers to increase per pupil spending in the current year by $18 to $7,294 – a move that reduces the education shortfall known as the “negative factor”by $24 million down to $831 million.
Colorado school districts wanted to keep the extra state spending, but lawmakers held back given projections for another tight budget year that starts in July.
Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and the top budget writer, said banking the money will help lawmakers work to keep negative the factor flat next year.
“We’ve pretty much tucked it away,” she said.
An additional $4 million in spending cuts are possible because of lower inmate projections for state prisons and youth corrections and cuts in court building costs, among other reductions.
The budget bills include a number of new spending items, however, including an additional $12 million in state dollars for an increase in Medicaid case loads.
Other smaller-dollar earmarks include $1 million from marijuana taxes for additional pesticide testing; $1.5 million in discretionary spending for the state prison in Limon, where inmates were able to disable the cell locks; and $2.7 million for court-ordered competency evaluations for prison inmates.