Guv: Pay raises for state workers in new budget
DENVER — The proposed spending plan Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled Thursday for next year doesn’t keep pace with the state’s economic recovery, and that’s a good thing, officials on both sides of the political aisle say.
That means the Democratic governor’s proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1, doesn’t try to restore all the cuts made over the past four years, they said.
“This budget is on a recovery path,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, one of the Legislature’s most outspoken fiscal hawks who also sits on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which drafts the state’s annual budget.
“This is management 101,” Lambert said of Hickenlooper’s budget. “I think the governor is maybe coming a little more toward us because he’s saying, ‘I want limited government, we want it more efficient.’ Those are Republican words that we can agree on.”
Although recent state revenue forecasts have shown an economy in recovery mode in recent months, the governor’s budget attempts to restore only some of the cuts the recession forced on lawmakers since it began in 2008, said Henry Sobanet, director of the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting.
Sobanet, who has worked for Republican and Democratic governors, said one of the chief goals of Hickenlooper’s plan is to restore only the most crucial funding needs. At the same time, he wants to increase the Legislature’s mandatory reserve from 4 percent of the state’s $8.1 billion general fund to 5 percent.
Doing so would increase that rainy-day fund, which is used only in cases of emergencies, by $90 million.
“The Colorado economy is rebounding substantially, but we’re still not there in terms of total number of jobs,” Sobanet said. “We can’t recover from this recession in one year in any area. That goes for compensation, that goes for K-12 education, it goes for higher education. This was a dramatic recession, and it’s going to take time to recover.”
The total $20 billion proposed budget calls for increasing spending by 5.4 percent over the current fiscal year, with most of that going toward public schools and pay raises for state workers.
The increase is nowhere near where the state’s budget would have been had the recession not occurred, Hickenlooper said.
“If you adjust for inflation and population growth, we are still $1.1 billion behind where we were in 2007-2008,” the governor said. “We’re making up about 3 percent of what we lost over the last five years. Not a large amount. It is heartening to be at the other side of what has been a very steep decline and to see ourselves clearly recovering.”
The budget proposal, which Hickenlooper is to present to the six-member JBC later this month, calls for 1.5 percent cost-of-living raises for all state workers and a 1.5 percent merit pay increase for the best performing workers.
Even though those raises would be tempered with increases in state workers’ health premiums, the hike would mark the first pay raise they’ve seen in four years.
The proposed budget also calls for a $200 million hike in spending to K-12 education, a $37.5 million increase to higher education and increasing spending to economic development initiatives.
None of the increases are dramatic, and that’s on purpose, Sobanet said.
“This budget growth in the general fund is actually slower than the bounce back that we’re experiencing in the budget this year,” Sobanet said. “This is really the first time since the end of the Great Recession where budget cuts was not the dominant theme. We’ve been able to do some targeted add-backs, but still try to keep a sustainable budget going forward.”
Hickenlooper’s budget also calls for restoring funds to programs designed to help who he calls “the last and the least.” Those are programs for the developmentally disabled, nutrition, elder abuse, seniors and a 1.5 percent increase in health care provider rates to county human services departments.
House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, questioned that portion of Hickenlooper’s budget.
“Unlike Governor Hickenlooper and his legislative Democrats, House Republicans do not view any Coloradans as being ‘last’ or ‘least,’” McNulty said. “Our objective is that all of our citizens have a strong foundation to succeed.” The last and the least is a biblical reference Hickenlooper often has used when he refers to those most in need of assistance.