Republicans in the Colorado Senate celebrated this week as the $30.5 billion state budget passed out of the chamber with $106 million in cuts to government administration spending as part of a plan to divert the money toward transportation.
Since January, the GOP had been clamoring for more money — $336 million to be exact — to upgrade the state’s roads and bridges. In exchange for the funds, Republicans agreed to halt their delay tactics in the chamber, which have consumed hours of lawmaking work in the past month.
“We now have something in this budget that we can now go back to the constituents … and say, ‘We got something, we worked together,’ ” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said Thursday.
But those dollars are far from certain. The House customarily will strip any Senate changes to the budget and the Democratic leadership of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee aren’t committing to retaining the transportation boost when the two chambers meet to negotiate a final deal in April.
Gov. Jared Polis isn’t committing to the transportation spending either. He has line-item veto power to avoid making the required diversion, which itself is constitutionally questionable.
“There never are any promises in this building,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who chairs the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee. “… It is a win, I’m not going to take that away from Senate Republicans. They were able to get an amendment onto the long bill. But that being said, we are now out of balance. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Moreno added: “(That money) is a lot to absorb. I think it’s too early to tell. But we are going to do our best to have a conversation about the proper support for transportation in this budget.”
The $106 million represents less than 1 percent of the $12.2 billion in discretionary funding in this year’s budget package, which already included $230 million in transportation funding before the amendment. But the shift is extraordinary because each dollar in the budget is intensely fought over.
Now, lobbyists at the Capitol and interest groups are watching closely to see whether their programs will face cuts to pay for the transportation spending. For instance, state workers are slated to get a 3 percent pay raise included in the 2020 fiscal year budget.
“We’re going to monitor to make sure that state employees and state services have the money they need,” said Hilary Glasgow, who leads the union representing state employees.
The amendment specifically directs the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting to find the $106 million in cuts. Polis’ spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday. But a question lingers about whether the governor can even make the cuts after a state court ruling decades ago rejected an attempt by former Gov. Dick Lamm to move dollars between agencies.
The budget negotiations will begin in the House next week, and the first move the Appropriations Committee will make is to remove all amendments made in the Senate, including the one for $106 million in transportation.
The chamber will vote on it’s own version of the spending plan and the two versions will go back to the Joint Budget Committee to draft a final version within the limits of the state’s revenue projections.
Democratic leadership in the House — House Speaker KC Becker and House Majority Leader Alec Garnett — did not commit to preserving the transportation money.
Like Moreno, Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat and the budget committee vice chairwoman, declined to say she supported the $106 million for transportation.
“We balanced the budget before we brought it to the floor,” Esgar said. “Adding more money into a budget doesn’t magically make the money appear. We can’t commit to supporting an amendment when we have no idea what other amendments are going to be coming forward yet.”
The good news for transportation funding proponents: the Senate Republican amendment serves as a placeholder for the budget committee’s final effort. The bad news: Democrats are in the majority, so there’s no promises Republicans will get their way.
At the start of the session, Senate Republicans sought $336 million for road construction. The budget committee found an extra $30 million for transportation, on top of the $200 million included in state law.
If the $106 million goes through, then all of the $336 million Republicans wanted would have been secured. But Republicans also are aware that their chances of getting that full amount are precarious.
Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who led the push for the extra funds, said Wednesday after the amendment passed that he understands “we’ve got a long way to go.”
“I hope it sticks in the House,” added Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican.
Republican Sen. Bob Rankin, a budget writer from Carbondale, said the GOP feels the one-time infusion of funds is a good compromise with fears of an economic downturn on the horizon. He said he is “definitely going to fight” to make sure the money isn’t axed in the final budget.
“It will probably need to be a separate bill,” he added.
The transportation funding came as one of 11 amendments that were added to the budget in the Senate to pay for a wide range of programs and services. Among the highlights:
- An extra $2.9 million in discretionary spending to increase the amount the state pays home-care providers
- Nearly $10 million more for opioid-crisis response efforts, an allocation from marijuana tax revenue
- $500,000 for suicide prevention efforts in the state’s health department from discretionary dollars