Smooth talking on state budget
State lawmakers are halfway through approving next year’s $19 billion spending plan, and so far they’re doing it with little political rancor.
The budget for the 2012–13 fiscal year, which begins July 1, includes money to fully fund the senior homestead property tax exemption, increase K–12 spending and not take money away from severance taxes that normally go to local and water projects.
The Colorado House approved the budget on a 64–1 vote, the most votes it received in recent memory. Lawmakers were able to do that, in part, thanks to a rosier revenue forecast and an improving economy.
Still, even lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee, made up of representatives and senators from both political parties, weren’t completely satisfied with the outcome.
“Politics is compromise, and on a JBC with three Democrats and three Republicans, we got through the budget process without a lot of acrimony,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, one of those JBC members. “That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the result. We could have put more resources into education, the disabled and low-income seniors, but we couldn’t because the senior property tax exemption diverted so much funding.”
That exemption, which hasn’t been funded for the past three years, took up nearly half of the $200 million revenue increase the Legislature expects to receive next year, she said.
Regardless, lawmakers agreed it was better than the program cuts the recession forced upon them during the past four years.
Under this year’s plan, the budget:
■ Increases funding to K–12 education by more than 4 percent, or $124 million, over the current budget.
■ Eliminates more than 171 state government positions, most of which comes from the decommissioning of one state prison and the closure of another.
■ Increases funding by more than $900,000 to the Department of Local Affairs, which administers severance tax grants to local governments.
■ Increases the state’s general fund, which pays for most state services, by 6.5 percent over the current year.
Although the budget increases pension contributions for state workers, it doesn’t include a pay raise for them for the fifth straight year.
The spending plan includes a 1 percent across-the-board cut to all state departments in personal services, except for so-called 24/7 direct-care services, such as the Colorado State Patrol, prisons and health care programs. For some agencies, that cut could mean a reduction in staff or leaving some vacant positions unfilled.
“This year’s budget was historic,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and JBC chairwoman. “I’m proud that House Republicans led the way to getting a budget passed by a 64–1 margin. That’s a record.”
The solitary lawmaker who voted against the budget was Rep. Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. He praised the work of the JBC for restoring the homestead exemption and increasing funding to public schools, but Holbert said the budget doesn’t set aside any money for a rainy day beyond the statutory reserve, which is 4 percent of the state’s $7.5 billion general fund that’s required under state law.
He called on his colleagues in the Senate, who will go over the budget this week, to find a way to do that.
“We must find a way to save for the future, to spend less than 100 cents of every dollar, and to address the long-term structural issues facing our state,” Holbert said. “Our state, and our nation for that matter, cannot afford to continue kicking this can down the road.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the budget by Thursday. Once that’s done, it will go back to the JBC, which will iron out any differences in the House and Senate versions.