DENVER - It's harder than it sounds to spend $3 billion, even for the government.
State lawmakers are beginning to grapple with the flood of money that will arrive soon from the economic stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed in Denver last month.
Colorado governments and school districts will get $2.9 billion the next two years, and individual Coloradans will get $3 billion in tax breaks, according to the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, which has kept close track of the stimulus bill.
But it's not a blank check. Much of the money is meant for schools.
"For a state that's been on a starvation diet for education, to have the possibility to have a billion dollars for education is just breathtaking. I'm in shock," said Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, during a briefing on the stimulus this week.
It will be crucial to keep a close eye on how the money is spent, Spence said.
The stimulus bill put governors in charge of large chunks of the money. That concerns several Colorado legislators, who are used to having more control over the budget than the governor.
"I'm curious how involved the Legislature itself will be in how this money is spent. I would prefer to be very involved," said Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, during a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee on Thursday.
Tapia worries that rural communities will get left out because they don't have the resources to quickly apply for several of the grants available in the stimulus bill.
Legislators will have a say over $1.5 billion that will flow into the state budget the next two years through higher federal Medicaid payments, money to stabilize school and college budgets, and other money that can be used for general purposes.
The debate over how to use that money will start to heat up today when lawmakers get their latest economic forecast. The numbers in that forecast will determine how much the Legislature has to cut its budget next year.
Staff members from the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute briefed the Joint Budget Committee Thursday and advocated for more spending on social welfare programs such as food stamps as the best way to stimulate the economy.
But Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, wondered if it would be a better idea to refill the state's reserve, which was depleted by half during this year's budget cuts.
"If it runs out, I guess we all go to the poorhouse together," White said.
The stimulus is especially generous to schools. Colorado school districts will get $302 million directly for disabled and poor students. The state budget gets an additional $621 million to shore up funding for K-12 schools and colleges. And nationally, there's an extra $5 billion for states that demonstrate the best educational reforms.
"Their intention with this money is not simply stabilizing of budgets. They want to see reform," said Matt Gianneschi, education adviser to Gov. Bill Ritter.
Gianneschi told the Senate Education Committee that Colorado is well prepared to compete for those grants. The federal government hasn't revealed the exact criteria, but it's looking for states that invest in teacher training and that track individual students' test scores throughout their school careers. Colorado has made those reforms in recent years, Gianneschi said.
To assure people that the money isn't being wasted, Ritter has set up an oversight panel that includes two Joint Budget members. One of them is Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland.
"You'll be able to know, wherever you live in the state, whether this is helping your portion of the state or not," Marostica said.
The panel's Web site - www.colorado.gov/recovery - already has details on how the first batch of the stimulus' transportation money is being used. Colorado gets $507 million for transportation projects, including $31 million for Southwest Colorado.
The first projects include two repairs on U.S. Highway 160 east of Durango that are getting a combined $8 million.