JBC plays hopscotch, but we pay the price

It was a tough week for the Western Slope in the statehouse.

On Tuesday, state economists told lawmakers that Colorado’s sustained economic recovery will generate a surplus of about $257 million during the current fiscal year and more than $1 billion next year.

Grand Junction and other pockets around the state, however, remain below pre-recession levels, and a much-needed economic boost in the form of state-funded capital development projects all but disappeared during a budget wrangling session on Thursday.

A proposed $18.5 million expansion of the Tomlinson Library on the Colorado Mesa University campus was among the list of casualties after two legislative panels clashed over funding priorities.

The six-member Capital Development Committee, whose job is to prioritize spending for capital development projects, had hoped to fund 32 projects at a cost of about $375 million, including CMU’s request.

But the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which drafts the state’s annual spending plan, said it only has $250 million available and chose projects farther down the CDC’s priority list, including several requested by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Funding those projects raised questions from several CDC members, including Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, who said there seemed to be no point for the CDC’s existence if the JBC was going to do whatever it wanted.

Some CDC members went so so far as to accuse two JBC members of approving projects in their own districts over higher priority projects elsewhere in the state, including CMU’s library expansion.

The brouhaha does little more than expose the Western Slope’s political vulnerability. Criticism aside, the JBC has completed its budget in the form of the long bill. It will be presented to the House on Monday, where it will be subject to amendments, likely to be stripped when the Senate deliberates its version.

Still, CMU President Tim Foster will fight the good fight and seek support of amendments that will shift some money to projects at CMU, Fort Lewis and Adams State. That will require appealing to lawmakers’ sense of fairness, asking them to honor the integrity of the funding-priority process.

For much of the session, lobbyists for the state’s colleges and universities had collaborated on funding priorities with both the CDC and the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“These projects not only are critical for the education of our students, but they also provide a direct means for the state of Colorado to put people to work in our part of the state,” Foster wrote to Western Slope legislators on Friday.

If there’s a bright side to this disappointing development, it’s that rosy budget projections should yield more discretionary spending for capital development projects in the coming fiscal year.

But the JBC’s action serves as an unpleasant reminder that politics is a messy business, mastered by those who rise to positions of leadership.


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