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Politics and Government

What the $30.5 billion Colorado state budget means for you — yes, you

The spending bills for fiscal year 2020 includes pay hikes for state employees, more money for education and dozens of other programs favored by Democrats.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stands with lamakers, education advocates and students to announce legislation for full-day kindergarten on March 22, 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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The $30.5 billion state-budget package introduced Monday offers a little something for most everyone in Colorado.

The state would pay for full-day kindergarten, relieving local school districts and parents of the cost. The price tag for tuition would remain flat, except at one university. All state employees would receive at least a 3 percent raise, and some much more. The dome at the Capitol even would get new paint.

The spending bills for fiscal year 2020, which starts July 1, represent a 4 percent increase from the current plan with more than two-thirds directed to three areas: health care, K-12 education, and colleges and universities.

“It’s an unprecedented investment in education, that’s for sure,” said Joint Budget Committee Chairman Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. “There’s some incredible stuff in this budget.”

MORE: A guide to how the Colorado state budget works.

The Democratic-controlled committee spent an additional $821 million in discretionary dollars, a 7 percent increase from the prior year, but much of it went toward covering the cost of existing programs.

The forecast for a slowing economy prompted caution, and Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers didn’t get all the items requested.

“The forecast forced us to make hard decisions, so there is a lot that didn’t get prioritized,” Moreno said.

Republican budget writer Kim Ransom, a Douglas County representative, remains concerned that the package spends too much. In an extraordinary move, she broke with tradition and refused to sponsor the bill with other members of the committee.

“Given Colorado’s economy right now and some of the bills I see coming, I think we need to be conservative, even more conservative,” she said, referring to concerns about an oil and gas bill’s impact on state revenues.

The reported total for operating budget is $32.3 billion, but that includes double-counted dollars transferred between state agencies and excludes major building projects. The more accurate number is $30.5 billion.

Here’s a look at what the budget package means for you.

For young learners …

The budget package includes $185 million to cover the annual cost of full-day kindergarten statewide, a top priority for Polis that created much consternation because of its hefty price tag.

Polis initially asked for $227 million — and an additional $25.7 million to implement the program — but he settled for less after projections showed that not all schools and students would participate. Right now, about 80 percent of Colorado students attend full-day kindergarten, but the cost in some areas is paid by local school districts and parents.

With the new state dollars, the Polis administration hopes districts will send some of the current spending on kindergarten toward reducing the 8,200- seat shortage in preschool.

For local school districts …

Colorado currently owes local school districts $672.4 million under a constitutional provision that requires annual spending increases. The budget would send $77 million to districts to reduce the so-called negative factor, a 13 percent decrease.

The money comes with no strings attached, but lawmakers are hopeful that some of the dollars help increase teacher pay, which is set at the local district level.

MORE: What you need to know about TABOR, Gallagher, Amendment 23

For college students …

The tuition that Colorado-resident students pay state universities and colleges would remain constant after budget writers funneled $121 million in discretionary spending to campuses. The lone exception is Metropolitan State University of Denver, which lawmakers would allow to increase tuition 3 percent next year.

The reason showcases inequities in the state’s current higher-education model. Most campuses are expected to boost out-of-state tuition to increase revenues, but Metro State caters mostly to Colorado students, so it’s not able to do the same.

MORE: Colorado pits big colleges against small campuses in a “zero-sum game.”

For state government employees …

The spending plan includes a proposed 3 percent salary hike for all state government employees to help address cost-of-living concerns.

Polis pitched the across-the-board hike, deviating from former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who initially requested a merit-based increase at the same amount.

A number of higher pay hikes are targeted for key areas, including prison guards. The state’s public defenders would get 10 percent salary increase and the Attorney General’s office also would be able to give discretionary increases to help retention.

The thousands who work as state contracts would get a 1 percent rate hike with greater increases in certain areas, such as behavioral health.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis jokes with members of the state House and Senate before his inauguration at the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Pool)

For Gov. Jared Polis …

The governor put forward an ambitious budget proposal shortly after taking office, but it is merely a recommendation for legislative budget writers. The Democrat scored his top campaign promise with money for kindergarten, but other priorities didn’t make the cut.

Polis requested an additional $13 million to eliminate the preschool wait list, $3 million for a paid-parental-leave program for state employees and $11 million to open and repurpose a shuttered state prison. But all were rejected by budget writers.

Many other agenda items for Polis remain in limbo as legislation continues to move through the General Assembly. His list includes a $2.5 million rural economic-development grant initiative; a $5 million increase in opioid-addiction treatment; about $800,000 to create a health care reinsurance system; a still-to-be-unveiled high school graduation program aimed at freshmen; and a prescription-drug importation program that will cost $2.7 million over two years.

For commuters …

Months after the failure of two ballot initiatives to pump money into road construction, state budget writers set aside $30.5 million more for transportation.

It’s not much compared with the billions in spending proposed in November, but it would add to the $200 million infusion in transportation money required by current law.

The need for transportation dollars in Colorado is estimated near $9 billion.

If you commute on E-470 in the Denver metropolitan area, look out for more state troopers on the road. The budget would cover two more full-time equivalent positions to increase patrols on the toll road.

For business owners …

Colorado’s notoriously complicated sales-tax system would get a new look under legislation being considered this year, and the budget earmarks money to help get the effort started.

The goal is to simplify how business owners calculate, charge and remit sales tax for online purchases in a state with 71 home-rule cities, each with its own sales-tax rate. The first steps of the project would cost $10 million, and an additional $8.75 million would be needed in the subsequent fiscal year to get the new electronic system up and running.

For rural residents …

Colorado’s years-long effort to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas of the state would see a boost. The state plans to award $18.7 million in grants in the next fiscal year, up from $6.5 million.

A one-time $30 million boost for rural schools included in the current budget year did not get extended, but state human-services officials want $1 million in new spending to improve nutrition in rural and underserved areas.

For fiscal conservatives…

The budget writers picked the more conservative economic forecast to serve as the foundation of the budget, but the exclusion of a Republican member as a sponsor signals that fiscal conservatives are not happy with the budget.

The prior two governors requested an increase in the state reserve fund, from 7.25 percent to 8 percent. But lawmakers didn’t agree to save the additional money, estimated at $90 million.  

One bright note for those who want less spending: The amount of federal dollars coming from Washington is essentially flat, an extra $46 million that amounts to a 0.5 percent increase from the prior budget year.

The Colorado Capitol rotunda on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

For construction companies …

More than $256 million in new spending would go toward construction and building projects on state property. The biggest ticket item listed is another $31.3 million for the construction of the Center of Personalized Medicine and Behavioral Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Another $22.5 million is earmarked for a building on the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins.

The smaller-dollar items include a second $1 million installment for renovations at the governor’s mansion, where Polis is not living full-time, and $1 million to repaint the interior dome at the Colorado Capitol.

For those seeking mental-health treatment …

Colorado settled a legal dispute with disability advocates earlier this month, and budget writers included $15.4 million to cover the state’s cost to reduce wait times for court-ordered mental-health evaluations.

In addition, the budget includes $5.4 million to add 42 more inpatient beds and 47 more full-time equivalent positions at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, a location not able to meet the current demand.

For those who live near oil and gas operations …

More than a dozen new oil and gas inspectors and related staff are included in the spending proposal at a cost of $1.5 million from fees charged to the industry. The additional positions come as lawmakers consider a measure to revamp how Colorado regulates the industry to emphasize health and safety. Three of the positions are dedicated to the office on the Western Slope, in part to clean up orphaned wells.

Elsewhere, the budget adds $630,000 in spending for five more positions to help address a backlog of permits and field inspections.

For immigrants seeking driver’s licenses …

The state’s program that provides driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally would see a boost under the budget. The state would spend an additional $263,000 from program fees to expand the service to a Durango office starting in July.

The new location would help address a waiting list of requests in a program that met opposition from Republicans in prior years.

A separate bill sponsored by Democrats that won approval in the Senate earlier this year would add even more money and create a minimum of 10 total offices that offer the service.

For reproductive health providers …

Democratic budget writers also prioritized another program that met criticism from Republican lawmakers in prior sessions.
The state’s family-planning initiative provides long-acting reversible contraception to women in need, and it won accolades from advocates for decreasing teenage pregnancies. In the next fiscal year, it would get an additional $1 million to expand its reach.


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