Public school funding may be in jeopardy

The biggest issue Colorado lawmakers will wrestle with as soon as the 2010 session opens this month will be the state budget, and few of them are looking forward to it.

Because of an expected $1 billion revenue shortfall, which comes on top of $2 billion in cuts lawmakers already made, lawmakers will consider trimming K-12 education by millions of dollars and removing a sales-tax exemption on soda and candy, which could raise another $132 million a year.

That’s only the beginning.

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, and a member of the panel that writes the annual spending plan, said because revenue continues to be down, the Joint Budget Committee likely will recommend continuing some of the same deep cuts it had for the past two budgets. The only good news is taxpayers are more aware of how bad the situation is, and they won’t be as shocked, he said.

“We broke the ice last year with a lot of the list of horribles,” White said. “We did the homestead exemption, and that was painful, but we’ll have to do it again. We did the same with the retail vendors’ fees, along with a number of other issues that we will have to do again. Hopefully, people will be more prepared. There just aren’t any easy answers.”

Cutting the homestead exemption, a program that allows seniors to halve their property tax bills, saved the state about $90 million a year. The vendors’ fee that businesses were allowed to charge to offset the cost of collecting sales taxes raised another $70 million.

But the dreaded “list of horribles” included cuts that in normal years would be unthinkable, such as closing a prison in Canon City or a facility for the developmentally disabled in Grand Junction. What’s still on the list but not yet touched is funding to public schools. The six-member committee now is talking about diverting more than $260 million from schools.

The state spends about $4.7 billion on K-12 education, which accounts for about 43 percent of the Legislature’s general fund, the state’s main checking account.

Some members of the committee question whether trimming K-12 funding violates the increased spending requirements under Amendment 23 approved by voters in 2000, butWhite said it’s quite legal.

“We’re not dealing with the per-pupil revenue; we’re dealing with the factors,” he said. “Even (Colorado Treasurer) Cary Kennedy, the author of Amendment 23, said the factors were never contemplated within the amendment.”

Those factors are used to enhance base funding that districts receive depending on the number of students they enroll. They increase that level based on such things as cost of living and the number of at-risk students schools have.


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