State jobs, K-12 are sore points in budget

DENVER — The bombshell amid the hoopla over Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget cuts — slashing funding for public schools by $375 million — may fizzle in the hands of lawmakers.

At least, it will for those who don’t believe it’s wise to cut so much out of K–12 spending.

Those state lawmakers remind Hickenlooper that under the Colorado Constitution, it is the legislative branch that controls the state’s wallet, not the governor.

“There’s a real disconnect here,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We say we want the best educational system … all the while we’re withdrawing the resources in order to be able to realize that. The governor’s plan as he gives it to us, I certainly hope is in part DOA.”

Hickenlooper is a Democrat, but the proposed budget cuts he presented to lawmakers last week appealed more to Republicans, who long have said the state puts too much money toward education at the expense of everything else.

Last week, the new governor said the worst recession in decades, coupled with a state fiscal policy that has caused public education and Medicaid to take up nearly two-thirds of the state’s budget, left him little choice.

As a result, he proposed cutting K–12 spending that will amount to about $497 less per pupil. He also wants to change the law that requires the state to backfill funding that local school districts aren’t receiving because of lower property tax revenues caused by the recession. For this budget cycle, the backfill amounts to about $117 million.

If those cuts stand, they are expected to lead to teacher layoffs and increased class sizes.

The governor also proposed cutting higher education by $37 million, health care programs by $57 million and human services by $17 million. He wants to eliminate 260 state positions and force state workers to contribute more to their pensions to free the state from a $16 million obligation.

None of that earned him friends among education advocates and state workers, whose reaction to his budget was tepid.

“CEA can’t predict yet the exact impact in each district, but we can absolutely say that it will be profound,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

“We oppose these proposed cuts, as they will further hurt our ability to provide essential state services to Coloradans,” added Robert Gibson, executive director of Colorado WINS, one of the main groups that represent state workers. “We oppose these proposed budget cuts because too many state workers and their families … are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Hickenlooper’s response to them makes him sound more like a Republican than a Democrat: Pay cut or no job. Choose.

GOP lawmakers said the governor is doing something the previous Democrat-controlled Legislature and former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, never did: stop relying on one-time sources of money and make some real cuts.

“We can navigate our way through this difficult economic climate, but it will take the General Assembly making the difficult choices that have been long avoided,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton. “This will require making structural adjustments in how government operates, fiscal discipline and enacting pro-business growth policies.”

To address that so-called structural deficit in the budget, Hickenlooper proposed putting $145 million into a reserve account, something that had Democrats scratching their heads.

They said it makes no sense to put money in a rainy-day fund at a time when it’s pouring.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, stopped short of saying that some of Hickenlooper’s proposed cuts would be rejected, but he did say the Legislature likely would find ways around some of them.

“This is where we start drilling down on the tough choices that are in front of us,” Shaffer said. “We knew that balancing the budget this year would be very difficult, but we’re prepared to do that. Nobody’s panicking.”

Some lawmakers hope, however, the drastic cuts will spark a serious proposal to raise taxes, something the state hasn’t done significantly in nearly two decades.

A group already has filed several proposed measures for this year’s ballot designed to alter the state’s income tax provisions that could lead to $1 billion more in revenues. Hickenlooper, however, said he wouldn’t take sides on that effort because he doesn’t believe there’s any interest among Coloradans to approve a tax hike.


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