DENVER - The Legislature has found a way to close the gaping hole in its budget, but not everyone will share equally in the pain.
College students and senior homeowners will bear some of the brunt of the cuts.
But a large part of the hole has been plugged temporarily by one-time transfers of special funds. Those funds won't be available in 2010, so the hard choices might be delayed for a year.
"We're spreading out the impact of those cuts, because we didn't have a lot of options in terms of closing departments," Wheat Ridge Sen. Moe Keller told her fellow Democrats on Monday.
Keller is chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee, which finalized its 2009-10 budget Wednesday. The full Senate will take up the committee's plan next week.
Tax revenue has plummeted since the recession took hold in Colorado, leaving a $1.5 billion gap spread over two years. The shortfall is bigger than the size of a major state agency like the Department of Corrections.
To cope with the hole, the Joint Budget Committee wants to shift much of the burden for college education to students and their families. The Legislature is considering allowing tuition increases of 9 percent or more for all colleges and community colleges. Last year, only the state's four universities were allowed 9 percent tuition increases. Colleges such as Fort Lewis were held to 7 percent, and community colleges to 5 percent.
In the most dramatic move Wednesday, the panel voted to cut higher-education funding by $300 million, on top of all the other cuts it has made this year.
However, that $300 million will be paid back by transferring money from a state-owned company called Pinnacol Assurance. The company writes most of the workers' compensation policies in Colorado, and it has accumulated a reserve of $700 million above what it needs to fund its business.
"This is money they didn't need," said Sen. Al White, R-Hayden.
The move will require a separate bill from the Legislature, and past attempts to tap Pinnacol's reserve have been too controversial to pass.
"We have to balance the budget," White said. "I'm hopeful we can be successful in the Pinnacol bill and offset the cuts to higher ed."
Under White's plan, the state would take an extra $200 million from Pinnacol to use as an emergency reserve through the fall.
But even the giant pot of Pinnacol cash wasn't enough to close the budget gap. Other cuts include:
•A hiatus on the "homestead exemption" for senior citizens' property taxes, saving $91 million a year.
•Ending for one year the fee the state pays businesses to collect sales taxes, saving $31 million.
•A $20 million transfer out of two funds that pay for smoking-prevention and cessation programs.
•A $17 million transfer from a fund for water projects. It was much lower than the $46 million that was proposed last week.
Despite the seemingly massive cuts to higher education, colleges still will have more money this year than they did last year when they take into account tuition, fees and the federal stimulus money, said Eric Kurtz, a Joint Budget Committee analyst.
Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, has been pushing all year to allow higher tuition in exchange for reduced state support at public colleges. He doesn't think raising the tuition caps will cause dramatic price increases.
"If we let (colleges) test it and they raise it too high, they're going to find out very quickly that they've overpriced their market," Marostica said.