DENVER - The recession arrives for real this week at the state Capitol.
After a month of fearful talk, lawmakers have begun to debate 37 bills that would cut spending, raise fees and perform accounting magic to cover the state budget's $604 million shortfall.
Some of the steepest fee increases would fall on rural residents who get their water from wells.
And that's just for this year.
Next month, lawmakers will contemplate an even grimmer budget for the 2009-10 year, which begins in July.
The House and Senate met in a rare joint session Monday morning to listen to a preview of the budget-cutting bills by the Legislature's staff experts. The Senate will take its first votes on the bills Wednesday.
"We cut public education and higher education pretty hard," said Sen. Mo Keller, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee, which proposed the 37 bills.
Under the bills proposed by the committee, K-12 education spending would fall $45.3 million, or 1.1 percent, mostly by eliminating money to build kindergarten classrooms. The cuts aren't so deep that they violate Amendment 23, which protects education spending. State support for colleges would fall $47 million, or 1.7 percent. But the cuts don't touch services for mental health and the developmentally disabled, Keller said.
The committee pushed most of the cuts off to July because only five months remain in this budget year. That means next year's budget will have to be cut deeper.
Most of the $604 million for this year would be found by drawing down half of the state's reserve, $150 million, and borrowing $227 million from special funds, including $30 million set aside to build water projects. The exact number of area residents affected by the proposed new fees wasn't available Monday because the state engineer's office was closed for Presidents Day.
Rural lawmakers already have won one budget battle by turning back a plan to limit overtime for water commissioners during the spring irrigation season. The plan was not included in the bills discussed Monday.
However, Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, still is worried about large fee increases for well permits and water supply plans.
"I'm struggling with the fees because it would appear they're increasing the fees in excess of what it costs to administer the permit," Isgar said.
Senate Bill 216 proposes to increase well permit fees to $665, up from today's $100. Keller said the well fees have been one of the most controversial changes so far.
Committee member Rep. Don Marostica believes the cuts his committee has proposed might not be enough. If the economy gets worse, the Legislature will have no choice but to balance the budget, he said, and it might do it by raising a variety of fees.
"That's what I'd be concerned about: What fee increases will the Legislature impose?" said Marostica, R-Loveland.
The federal stimulus bill, which President Barack Obama plans to sign in Denver today, remains the wild card.
Committee members still are trying to figure out how much money the bill has for Colorado and how it can be used. They were counting on $107 million in extra Medicaid money, but that number could double, said committee member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.
"It's going to take some time to work through the federal requirements and the state requirements," Ferrandino said.