DENVER - Lawmakers began to slash at their growing budget deficit Tuesday, using a 'hit list' of more than $1 billion in potential cuts.
The action comes on the heels of a painful set of cuts the Legislature is just now finishing.
A new round of number-crunching revealed the budget gap isn't quite as bad as feared last week: Lawmakers have to cut $156 million this year and $786 million next year.
But it's still a terrible spot to be in, Sen. Moe Keller of Wheat Ridge told her fellow Democrats on Monday.
"This is $786 million (next year) in addition to the cuts we have already made to the departments. This is really bad," said Keller, chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee.
Staff members for Keller's committee combed through the budget to find enough cuts to close the gap.
A memo released Tuesday shows deep potential cuts:- $100 million from colleges by raising tuition and cutting state support.
- $100 million from human services by cutting child care, youth corrections, services for the mentally ill and more.
- Furloughs for state employees.
- Cutting the tourism-promotion budget again.
- Laying off prison guards and ending the program that puts inmates to work in manual labor jobs.
Even though the Legislature already cut the budget once this year, it has to make deeper cuts because more Coloradans lost their jobs this spring than economists had predicted, so state tax revenue is down dramatically.
Some of the new ideas shift the pain to local governments. The JBC is looking at taking money out of gas and oil taxes that now is used for grants to local communities. Another idea would save $8 million by requiring counties to pay more for child welfare.
The JBC made its first attempt at new cuts Tuesday, and nothing has been finalized. However, the entire 'hit list' for the next budget year totals $885 million, leaving little room for negotiation if the Legislature is to cover the $786 million gap.
Unlike Congress, deficit spend-ing isn't an option. The state Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget.
The recession is forcing the JBC to consider cuts that no one on the six-person panel likes.
Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, proposed cutting the program that puts prison inmates to work in landscaping and construction jobs.
The Department of Corrections won't like that because it will increase the idle time for inmates, said John Ziegler, director of the JBC's staff.
Tapia shot back: "I would ask them if they prefer us to cut the school-breakfast program."
Water programs could be in for another large hit. The Legislature already voted to transfer $30 million out of two funds used for water project construction. The JBC took steps Tuesday to transfer another $15 million this year, and it could take another $46 million next year, leaving little left in the funds.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, ordinarily is a defender of the water accounts, but she sounded resigned Tuesday.
"I really feel like we're in a crisis, and everything is being looked at," Curry said.
Raiding the funds will hamper Colorado's ability to build water projects in future years, she said.
The JBC is likely to wrap all the new cuts for both this year and next into the "Long Bill," the annual budget bill that it is now finalizing.
The Senate is likely to consider the Long Bill the week of April 6.