I had to put up a fight this week.
Some might say it was a David and Goliath attempt, or a blood from a turnip attempt. Whatever it was called, my attempt failed, but not for lack of trying.
Every year, the Colorado Legislature takes a week away from the usual to debate and amend the Long Bill, Colorado’s state budget.
It is called the Long Bill because, well, it’s long. It covers every department and outlines every penny the state spends. And according to the Colorado Constitution, the budget has to balance.
The Joint Budget Committee and hardworking staff started working on this annual budget in November last year. The six members listen to testimony from every department, hearing about where they have spent funding, if the taxpayer dollars were well spent, where they have overbudgeted, and where we need to dedicate more resources in the next year. The JBC does not fully know what the budget will look like until March, when the quarterly economic forecast comes out, so most numbers remain fluid.
One of the groups they hear from is the Capital Development Committee, assigned to prioritize the maintenance of existing state government buildings and the addition of new structures, including buildings for colleges and universities, prisons and our human services needs. Not an easy task, considering how many structures the state owns; but they are an investment, and it is our responsibility to maintain them.
The battle starts brewing. The JBC tells the CDC about how much the state will be able to spend this year. CDC members pore over their notes and calculations and draw “the line.” If a group’s project request is above the line, it has a good chance of getting funded. If it is below, next year might be better.
Last year, Fort Lewis College took a spot above the line. It was given money to survey, plan and design a classroom addition to the Whalen Gymnasium for its growing collection of health-related majors. The classes are drawing students to the school, increasing enrollment numbers.
FLC went back this year, with specific plans in hand, to ask for money to complete the project. It showed its drawings, financial plans and funding sources. And the school made it above the line for the CDC. Barely, but it made it.
And then March hit. The JBC had to examine all the budget estimates for the next fiscal year, and chose to base its budget on the most conservative version, which was $250 million less than estimated in December. That, unfortunately, meant that not as much money could be spent for capital development projects, as well as many other asks. The line was raised, and Fort Lewis was not going to get the money to complete the project it had started.
I had a battle on my hands. I talked to the CDC members. I pleaded with the JBC members. I tried to convince the leadership team. To no avail
I worked with FLC representatives. They said they could take a third of the requested funding to at least get the project started. We joined forces with the University of Northern Colorado representatives, who were also asking for about the same amount of money, but who also lost out. Strength in numbers, we hoped.
We stood strong during the amendment phase of the Long Bill hearing, asking for help and stating our reasons: money to continue the project will attract the donors who will provide private money to match state money; only twice has the state not funded the second half of a project, and they were both during financial downturns; this is for classrooms, for courses that are luring students to FLC; rural colleges need different financial help than larger universities; the Western Slope needs to be heard.
We lost sleep. We debated into the night. We urged. We counted votes. We pleaded.
And in the end, we lost. The money just wasn’t there.
It hurts to lose this fight, and I know there are many more battles on the horizon. When people say taxpayer money is spent frivolously in Colorado, or that we spend more than we have, or that the government ignores certain populations, I have to disagree.
It is hard to lose, in this case, but the battle was well fought.
So what’s next? I will keep looking out for District 59; we will continue the fight next year. We hope to invite members of both the Capital Development Committee and the Joint Budget Committee to visit the FLC campus, impressing upon them the importance of this project – and of maintaining a strong college to serve Southwest Colorado.
Barbara McLachlan represents State House District 59. Reach her at email@example.com.