Panel tours places that could have funding cut next year

State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, looks at a bullet through a microscope during a Friday tour of the forensics laboratory at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in Grand Junction.

Prisons, crime labs, state parks, universities and human service programs are all potential programs that could see state budget cuts next year.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee spent Thursday and Friday touring an example of each one of those state-funded programs on the Western Slope.

Five lawmakers on the six-member panel that writes the state’s annual spending plan took a two-day tour of the Rifle Correctional Facility, Rifle area state parks, the Grand Junction Regional Center, Colorado Mesa University and the Colorado Bureau of Investigations forensics lab in Grand Junction.

At each, the lawmakers were told by representatives of the state departments that oversee those places, including many of their executive directors, how important they are.

At each, the lawmakers were cautious not to say who might feel the budget ax, but made it clear that some would.

“We’re going to continue to cut higher education because it’s the only place we have some discretion,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “We’re going to see probably, from what I’ve heard, another 10 to 25 percent cut. We’re getting to the place where the current model for funding higher education is not working.”

Though it depends on how the state’s revenue forecasts come out over the next few months — and things don’t look very promising, some budget committee members said — some of the places the panel toured either have been on its hit list of potential cuts in the past, or could be targeted in the future.

The Rifle prison, for example, was considered for possible closure two years ago, but then-Gov. Bill Ritter rejected it at the last minute.

Some committee members, including Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, continue to question why it costs more per-inmate to run that facility than other prisons in the state.

At the regional center, where the state closed a skilled nursing center two years ago, Ferrandino said any future cuts likely wouldn’t save the state much money. Still, he said, the possibility of closing that facility and two others in the state is being considered.

“It’s a longer-term conversation over the next couple of years,” Ferrandino said. “If they are working, how do we reinvest to make sure they’re working well? If they’re not, how do we look at different ways to provide services? This is not and should not be a decision made through a budgetary lens. It should be: What’s the best policy for the people that we’re serving?”

Rep. Laura Bradford, who joined the Joint Budget Committee as it toured the regional center, said she is concerned how that conversation might go.

The Collbran Republican said since Ritter successfully closed the nursing center in 2009, she has tried to keep a close tab on what happens with its funding.

“I’m anticipating a shift and not necessarily a cut,” she said, referring to the way the state funds programs for the developmentally disabled, such as those at the center. “The biggest thing is: How do we uninstitutionalize every single person that deserves to be uninstitutionalized, and are we saving money? That’s what I want them to be thinking about.”

The idea of privatizing the CBI’s crime labs in the state, including the one in Grand Junction, also has been floated, something David Linnertz, director of the local lab, said would be unwise.

He said it would make the cost of conducting forensic tests too expensive for larger law enforcement agencies in the state, and completely price out smaller ones.

“When you look at smaller departments, a lot of them don’t even have their own detectives, much less a forensics expert,” he said.

There likely won’t be any immediate changes to the state parks and wildlife areas, officials with the newly merged Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division told the committee — at least not until after that merger is completed.

At one time, the state was considering redesignating four state parks as wildlife areas with fewer public services, including Harvey Gap and two other Western Slope parks. That idea was scrapped when the merger of the Colorado Department of Wildlife and Colorado State Parks was approved earlier this year.


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