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The Senate Chamber at the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Anna Layden makes $57,000 a year as an educator in Durango and owes the same amount in student debt after putting herself through college and graduate school. To pay it down, she applied for a $5,000 loan repayment through a new initiative for Colorado teachers.

Deana Cairo wanted to see her 19-year-old son with developmental disabilities move closer to receiving round-the-clock services this year so that someday he could live outside their Boulder home. He’s on a waitlist that is eight-years long but an infusion of money last year and more committed this year offered hope. 

Gini Bradley struggled to find affordable health care in Summit County for herself and her family. A new state reinsurance plan this year offered a lifeline, allowing her to secure better coverage and save $500 a month on premiums.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the Democratic-led General Assembly made each program a priority as part of an ambitious agenda enacted in the 2019 legislative session. Now they must decide whether to temporarily pause or eliminate the initiatives in order to cut billions in spending from a state budget hobbled by the coronavirus.

The three programs are among the potential spending cuts that Colorado lawmakers will consider when the budget committee resumes work next week, and taken together, the proposals represent a significant rollback of the Democratic victories after winning complete control of the Capitol in the 2018 election.

The priorities now jeopardized by possible budget cuts: 

  • Millions in spending to increase treatment and resources for opioid addiction. 
  • An $800,000 initiative for ninth graders designed to boost the state’s dismal graduation rate and a $2.5 million program to place more social workers in schools. 
  • A $1 million program to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada at lower costs for Colorado consumers. 
  • The diversion of $30 million earmarked for investment in affordable housing across the state and a sustainable funding source from a business fee in future years. 
  • A reduction in state funding for the full-day kindergarten program to its prior level, which could save $220 million.
  • A one-year postponement of a full-time professional Colorado Oil and Gas Commission to enhance regulation of the state’s industry to save $1 million.

“It’s dramatic,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget writer. “They are so painful and they hurt so, so much.”

And it doesn’t end there. Other items on the list of potential cuts reflect long-standing bipartisan deals to ensure the solvency of the state employee pension, a far-reaching program that insures 76,000 low-income children, and initiatives like a new state park at Fisher’s Peak near Trinidad.

The state is eyeing a potential budget shortfall of $3 billion in the current and next fiscal years because of the economic calamity caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Sen. Dominick Moreno, a top Democratic budget writer, said the options on the table “are reflective of the gravity of the situation we are in.”

More alarming, he said, is the fact that the proposed budget maneuvers identified by legislative budget analysts in new documents released this week amount to roughly $1 billion in spending reductions — well short of what is needed. “We can essentially guarantee that the cuts are going to be deep, and in some senses, they may have to exceed what’s represented in these budget balancing documents,” the Commerce City lawmaker said.

Democratic legislative leaders address the media after drafting a resolution to shutter the legislature March 13, 2020. From left: House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver; House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder; Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo; and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats face tough choices on where to cut 

Buoyed by a strong economy, the Democratic majority spent significant sums in the current budget to put in place its agenda and earmarked more spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — so much so that lawmakers worried about how to pay the tab months before the coronavirus entered the picture. 

The new programs approved in the 2019 session are an easy target for potential spending cuts because many of them — including the teacher loans, ninth-grade intervention, prescription drug importation, expanded opioid treatment and development of affordable housing — are not yet fully implemented. Others like reinsurance and full-day kindergarten just started this fiscal year.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers are looking at how to close a $3 billion budget shortfall. Here’s the roadmap.

Democratic leaders are now deciding which to sacrifice and which to keep. “Obviously, new programs that aren’t established and up and running are some of the easiest to press the pause button on,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “But that doesn’t mean they are all unanimously the right decision for the legislature to make.”

Republican lawmakers are worried their priorities will take a hit, too. On the list of potential budget moves is diverting severance tax money from communities impacted by oil and gas drilling and using it to fill other budget gaps.

“I think it becomes quite obvious that a lot of these programs that my friends across the aisle thinks are great ideas depend a great deal on a strong economic picture with equally strong revenues,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

Sen. John Cooke, a Republican leader from Greeley, put it more bluntly: “I’m happy it will cut back their agenda by quite a bit.”

“I think there is going to be pain for both sides, but more on the Democrat agenda than ours,” he added.

People across Colorado may feel impact of budget cuts

The educator loan forgiveness program created in 2019 is so popular that demand exceeds the total earmarked in the budget five-fold. It allows teachers to receive loan repayments of $5,000 a year for up to five years if they teach a high-priority specialty or work in a rural school.

Layden, the middle school interventionist in Durango, said she would be disappointed if funding for the educator loan forgiveness program disappeared. She’s also concerned about cuts to teacher salaries. 

Her husband is a teacher, too. And they scrape by to provide for themselves and their 2-year-old son. “We’ve been professionals for 15 years, both of us, and we still are living paycheck to paycheck, pretty much,” she said.

Deana Cairo puts her arm around her 19-year-old son, Ryan Schirmer, who has been on the state Medicaid waitlist for adult comprehensive services for about four years. Budget cuts following the coronavirus pandemic could make the waitlist even longer for thousands of adults with disabilities in Colorado. (Provided by Deana Cairo)

For Cairo, the gap in spending on services for disabled adults like her son, Ryan Schirmer, is not new. The man’s neurological issues and congenital craniofacial disorder mean he cannot live on his own. 

Schirmer, who has access to therapy and life-skills sessions a few hours per day, has been on the waitlist for comprehensive adult services for about four years. Cairo said her son would like to have the freedom someday to live in a group home and not with his parents. 

Six years ago, Colorado lawmakers pledged to clear the waitlists for all Medicaid waiver programs for people with disabilities by 2020. It didn’t happen, but more money a year ago and a big increase planned this year would have made a dent. Now budget analysts are recommending reductions in services and a freeze in new enrollment in adult comprehensive services to save millions in state dollars. 

The reinsurance program that helped Bradley in Frisco is touted by the governor as a way to reduce health care costs and ranks as one of his top achievements in his first year in office. 

One group that used the program is Peak Health Alliance, a purchasing cooperative that operates in Colorado mountain communities. This year, the alliance secured a 40% reduction in premium prices for some people in Summit County and the reinsurance program accounted for half or more of the decrease.

If it goes away, many Peak members could see premiums spike back up. “The impact on people in this incredibly difficult economic environment could be devastating,” said Tamara Pogue, the CEO of the Peak Health Alliance.

Staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting...

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.