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Gov. Polis prioritizes education in first budget request, but Democratic lawmakers are skeptical

Democratic budget writers worry the money for full-day kindergarten isn’t sustainable. And they want money for transportation

Members of the Colorado legislature applaud and take photos as Gov. Jared Polis enters the state House chambers before delivering his first State of the State address on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis wants to spend more money on education in his first budget request, including his promise of free, full-day kindergarten, but state lawmakers immediately cast doubt on his plans.

The Democrat asked state lawmakers Tuesday to earmark $227 million for kindergarten students and added another $26 million to help school districts implement the measure by the fall school year. Districts that don’t provide full-day kindergarten wouldn’t receive any additional money.

“This proposal leverages our improved 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.

But the education money concerns Democratic budget writers because the spending is not sustainable ahead of a potential economic slowdown and it may preclude putting dollars toward other areas.

“I think he’s well aware that the proposal that he’s made is a request and that ultimately it’s the Joint Budget Committee that has the final say on what’s actually included in the budget package,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and top budget writer.

The $31.7 billion budget request for the 2019-20 fiscal year starting in July represents a 4.4 percent increase over the current year’s spending plan and builds on what his predecessor, Gov. John Hickenlooper, requested before he left office.

“I would say, by and large, there’s great consistency between the previous administration and our budget,” Polis said. “There are not any significant cuts or backing off.”

The priorities Polis outlines mirror the ones he identified days ago in his first State of the State address. The administration believes new tax revenues from Colorado’s strong economy will provide enough money to cover his proposals, which also will benefit from new property tax estimates that show the state will owe local governments less to conform with the Gallagher Amendment.

MORE: Gov. Jared Polis unveils ambitious, expensive plans in first State of the State. Here’s the speech, annotated.

But those projections are bad news for homeowners, who will receive significantly less tax relief than expected.

Polis’ budget request represents the beginning of negotiations with state lawmakers on the next year’s spending plan. The Democratic majority on the Joint Budget Committee has expressed concern that it doesn’t have enough money to meet the state’s current needs and add new programs, such as full-day kindergarten. Right now, the state doesn’t have enough teachers to fill the classrooms either — with the teacher shortage estimated at 5,000.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers want to prioritize transportation, with GOP legislators in the state Senate seeking to put $336 million more toward road construction. Polis’ budget request, however, doesn’t mention the issue.

“You have a variety of competing priorities,” said Moreno, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee. “The governor’s budget doesn’t really touch on transportation, for example, and that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents — that they are tired of sitting in traffic, that they want better infrastructure.”

From left: Democratic Sens. Dominick Moreno, of Commerce City, and Rachel Zenzinger, of Arvada, talk about Gov. Jared Polis’ budget request. Both sit on the Joint Budget Committee. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun via YouTube)

Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the legislature have already expressed concern about the broader cost of Polis’ agenda. “I don’t know how he’s going to pay for it all,” Assistant Senate Minority Leader John Cooke, R-Greeley, said after the governor’s State of the State address.

Polis keeps key Hickenlooper priorities in the budget

Polis retained a line from Hickenlooper’s plan to provide an additional $77 million to reduce the $672 million debt owed to school districts by the state under the so-called negative factor.

Right now, 80 percent of the state’s school districts provide full-day kindergarten but the state only covers about 58 percent of the cost. Local districts and parents often fill the gap.

Polis hopes the $100 million that local districts spend to supplement the current kindergarten program could be redirected to pay for as many as 8,000 new preschool spots to help address the current waiting list. But how any new money is spent is sure to generate debate, with the state’s teacher’s union suggesting it should go toward increasing educator salaries.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, also worries that some districts are too underfunded to create a full-day kindergarten. “That’s a concern, that some wouldn’t be able to have it because they can’t meet (the requirements),” she said.

Gov. Jared Polis gives his first State of the State address to a joint session of the state legislature at the state Capitol on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Polis requests new priorities for spending

Polis’ budget plan also prioritizes efforts to lower health care costs, address immigrant driver’s licenses and boost oil and gas regulation.

Other proposals from his request include:

  • $2 million to address graduation rates in the 10 high schools with the highest dropout rates.
  • An unspecified amount to create his administration’s Office of Saving People Money on Healthcare.
  • $1.3 million to start a program to allow Coloradans to import drugs from Canada.
  • $1 million to launch a health care reinsurance program to address the highest-cost patients.
  • $2 million for an economic grant program targeted to rural business owners.
  • $800,000 to allow a Division of Motor Vehicles office in Durango to offer driver’s licenses to people in the U.S. illegally under a program that has been cash-starved.
  • $3 million to cover Polis’ promise to create an eight-week paid parental leave program for state employees.
  • $1.8 million to pay for 16 new positions at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, including five new well inspectors.

“We’re looking for high-impact, very-low-cost budget items,” Polis said.

MORE: The top 10 issues to watch in Colorado’s 2019 legislative session

The areas where Polis is continuing the previous administration’s proposals include an increase in the reserve to 8 percent; $30 million to implement the state water plan; and $121 million for a one-year state college tuition freeze.

One item Polis would change from Hickenlooper’s proposal is a pay raise for state employees. Hickenlooper made it merit-based, but Polis would make it an across-the-board salary hike to address cost-of-living increases.

Another shift would convert a scholarship program for prospective teachers into a $6.5 million loan-forgiveness program for teachers. Polis says he wants to guarantee teachers enter and stay in the field.

The governor will formally present his budget to the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday.

Correspondent Brian Eason contributed to this report.

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