DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis unveiled how he plans to pay for some of his high-ticket campaign promises Tuesday, including his pledge to provide free all-day kindergarten statewide.
But his plan, which Polis will formally present to the Legislature later today in a public appearance in front of the Joint Budget Committee, doesn't address long-term funding, troubling some lawmakers.
To pay for it, the new governor is relying on a surplus in state and local tax revenue to fund much of his initial priorities, something that isn't guaranteed over the long haul.
"This proposal leverages our good economy and the recent updates in the (revenue) estimates to benefit our schools and provide full-day kindergarten without impacting any of the other education budget priorities," Polis said in revealing what changes he plans to request beyond what former Gov. John Hickenlooper asked for in his November budget proposal to the JBC. "It's about time in Colorado that parents have full-day kindergarten. That has a positive effect on families, saving people money and districts to free up capital."
Polis' plan is to provide $227 million to the state's 178 school districts to pay for full-day kindergarten, requiring those districts that accept the money to offer it free to parents, but not forcing those districts to provide it.
A handful of districts statewide already offer all-day kindergarten, but some require parents to pay for a portion or all of it. Other districts only offer half-day kindergarten, which also can come with a charge to parents.
Polis' proposal allows districts to get the money they need to pay for free full-day kindergarten but bars them from taking that state aid and charging parents a portion or all of the cost at the same time.
Those districts that opt not to implement full-day kindergarten would continue to get per-pupil funding for half-day kindergarten, but at the current 58 percent rate.
Polis said the state's vibrant economy, one that also has increased property tax revenues for school districts — thus reducing their dependence on state aid — is allowing him to propose these changes without cutting any other aspect of education funding.
Lauren Larson, director of the governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting, said last month's revenue forecast from state economists showed there is ample money, at least for now, to pay for Polis' plan.
"The forecast said that property tax revenues are filling the coffers of local governments to a higher level than was expected, and that is reducing the burden on the state's general fund to backfill the funding that is needed for K-12 education," Larson said.
Some members of the JBC, however, said while they support Polis' push for free all-day kindergarten, they are concerned his plan doesn't provide for long-term funding. Without that, the program could become an unfunded mandate on local school districts if money were to dry up, such as during an economic downturn.
"We absolutely have the money to be able to do full-day kindergarten this year, so the question really becomes, what do we do in the outlying years and how to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible given our other competing priorities," said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada.
"We have a variety of competing priorities," added Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. "The governor's budget doesn't really touch on transportation, for example. There may be some things with human services coming down the pike, and corrections is always an issue."
Moreno said some school districts, such as District 51, also have issues with finding room to house full-day kindergarten. As a result, they would have to come up with capital construction money to create that space.
Polis said he's already thought of that. That's why his plan also calls for another $25.7 million to cover any implementation costs — such as classroom space — for those districts that go to full-day care.
District 51 offers both full- and half-day kindergarten programs but doesn't charge for them. The actual number of students in both programs this year won't be known until next week, but projections indicate there are 826 full-day and 701 half-day kindergartners in the district, district spokeswoman Emily Shockley said.
She said the district's preschool program likely would benefit from receiving more state dollars for kindergarten, too. Currently, the state funds 485 preschool slots, and the district an additional 350.
The governor's plan doesn't alter Hickenlooper's proposal to continue to lower the budget stabilization factor — money cut from K-12 education during the recession that's slowly being paid back — by $77 million.
Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, who also serves on the JBC, said Republicans want to see any extra kindergarten funding to be counted against that factor, which now is down to about $650 million. If that happens, the debt could be nearly cut in half.
While Polis' plan doesn't call for any new money being raised or establish a permanent funding stream to pay for kindergarten in years to come, he said he's putting more money into reserve accounts to guard against future cuts in case of a new recession, including putting $90 million more into the state's reserve fund and $92 million more into the state education fund. That would bring the reserve fund to nearly $1 billion, and the education fund to about $230 million.
"We do (this) in a fiscally responsible way that would deposit money in the state education fund as well as keeping a healthy reserve to minimize the needs for any cuts to education during economic downturns," Polis said.
Polis said his plan frees up about 5,100 slots in preschool programs that some districts also offer. His funding plan also calls for adding an additional 3,000 openings in preschool programs around the state.
Other changes to Hickenlooper's budget request include funding for the state's water plan and programs designed to help lower the cost of health care and prescription medications.