DENVER - Colorado's public colleges will live to fight another year.
With colleges staring at a $300 million cut, Democrats and Republicans joined Thursday to cobble together a budget that keeps higher education at its current funding level.
Instead, the pain could be spread to state employees, health-care providers and smokers. Money from the federal stimulus bill - which Gov. Bill Ritter controls - also will play a big role in closing the budget gap.
Representatives struck a bipartisan compromise, especially on a $16 million hack at the state payroll. The sum amounts to eight furlough days for nonemergency employees.
House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said no one wants to see furloughs.
"The reality is, our economy's in trouble, and it's irresponsible for us to do anything else," May said.
Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, agreed.
"We have to make the tough decisions, and this is one of them," Carroll said.
The House gave its initial approval to the budget Thursday on an overwhelming voice vote. A recorded vote on final approval is expected today. Last week, the Senate passed the budget on a mostly partisan 22-12 vote.
Thursday's new cuts include:
- Cutting $28 million from payments made to medical workers who give health care to the poor and elderly. Cuts range from 2.17 to 4.33 percent per provider.
- Shifting $24 million to $29 million from K-12 schools to higher education.
- Shifting $215 million from various special funds, including the Arkansas Valley Conduit water project, local government grants, the CollegeInvest tuition savings program and unclaimed property trust funds.
Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, had a message for Colorado voters.
"You said cut the fat, we cut the fat. You said keep going, we cut to the bone. We're now basically in amputation mode, and I think it's very important for the people of Colorado to understand that," Court said.
The stimulus money Ritter controls will be used to keep colleges at their current funding levels. However, once the stimulus money is gone in two years, colleges once again could be facing large cuts.
Ritter on Wednesday scuttled a plan to take money from Pinnacol Assurance, a state-chartered workers' compensation company, to balance the budget. Republicans and business lobbyists had strongly opposed the plan.
The package of cuts is the breakthrough that lawmakers have been seeking for weeks. Denver Democratic Rep. Mark Ferrandino, who serves on the budget-writing committee, said he doesn't expect any major rewrites in the next week. The Legislature is trying to send its budget to Ritter by Wednesday.
But controversies remain.
Democrats still have a bill to assert state control over Pinnacol, but they didn't bring it up for debate Thursday.
Also, the budget-balancing plan relies on repealing $38 million in sales-tax breaks for food sold from vending machines and cigarettes. The House Finance Committee will hear the cigarette bill this afternoon.
May said he will oppose the tax bills. Instead, he'd like to suspend a tax credit that pays farmers and ranchers to keep their land away from developers.
"We're still talking. This isn't over," May said.