DENVER – When lawmakers begin debating the annual state budget on Thursday, they will be spared considering $373 million in cuts first proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Still, budget writers were forced to cut in order to present a balanced $27 billion budget. Total funds would actually be closer to $25.8 billion when considering double-counted cash.
The budget will receive an initial vote in the Democratic-controlled House, followed by a final vote on Friday, before heading to the Republican-controlled Senate.
As part of the so-called Long Bill, the Joint Budget Committee eliminated more than $59 million in taxpayer refunds by making adjustments to funds in order to avoid the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights’ triggers. Also in the Long Bill: a cut of $73 million to hospitals and $50 million in transportation funding.
“I’m relieved that we were able to avoid many of the most severe consequences,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, chairwoman of the JBC. “But we’ve kicked the can all the way to the end of the road.”
When Hickenlooper presented his budget in November, the governor’s budget writers proposed sweeping cuts, including reducing higher education by $20 million and allowing the gap in full K-12 education payments to grow by $50 million.
Instead, the budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July would buy-down the K-12 education “negative factor” by $24.5 million. Per-pupil spending would increase by $112 to $7,425.
While higher education won’t receive any additional funds this year, budget writers were able to avert the $20 million in cuts.
The JBC also proposed maintaining the state’s reserve at 6.5 percent.
And state employees would not see the raise that they’ve been calling for.
The bill received unanimous support from the bipartisan JBC.
Budget writers included about $9.9 billion in general fund, or discretionary, spending, up nearly 5 percent over the current budget. That number is realistically closer to $8.7 billion when considering double-counted cash.
Overall spending represents an increase of about 1.3 percent compared with the current year.
Lawmakers in the House on Wednesday broke into party caucuses to discuss the budget and possible amendments, which would come Thursday.
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, said he plans at least two amendments, which would add funding for education and transportation. No major controversial Southwest Colorado issues are expected during the debate, he said.
One issue that could haunt the process is funding for the state’s air quality programs. Republicans objected to providing $8.5 million to the Department of Public Health and Environment over concerns that the department would implement federal Clean Power Plan carbon standards.
Democrats successfully placed the funding in the Long Bill, after Republicans pushed to eliminate the money. But it’s possible the issue will surface again through amendments.
The GOP might also fight to restore taxpayer refunds, which would come in tax year 2017.
Even if amendments pass the House or Senate, a conference committee would likely strip most amendments from the Long Bill, restoring it to its original form.
Hanging over the process is a separate piece of legislation that would restructure a fee assessed on hospitals in an effort to free money for future budget years.
“It’s still a high priority,” Hickenlooper said of the effort. “Wouldn’t you have a sense of urgency if you had the ability to try and put that money back into use?”