Colorado budget committee sent back to drawing board |

Colorado budget committee sent back to drawing board

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Pree
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Senate leaders sent the budget committee back to the drawing board on Thursday, saying the prospect of cutting $300 million from higher education next year is unacceptable.

The announcement came just hours before the full Colorado Senate was to start debating the budget for the 2010 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The deadline for introducing a budget in the Senate had been delayed twice before. That’s because the Joint Budget Committee had to reopen this year’s budget and make cuts in next year’s after an economic forecast predicted a deeper and longer recession than expected. Legislative economists say tax revenues will decline by $900 million.

The committee has struggled to cut a final $300 million from next year’s budget, and it closed in on higher education. It’s a frequent target during downturns because it’s the only large state operation that isn’t protected either by constitutional spending limits, like public schools, or federal mandates and funding, like Medicaid.

Plan B also was to go after $500 million from the surplus of Pinnacol Assurance, a state-created worker’s compensation insurance company, and use most of it to restore funding to state colleges and universities. But Pinnacol and businesses are fighting the move, and Pinnacol has threatened to sue if the state tries to take the money.

Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, said he backs the Pinnacol plan but acknowledges a legal battle could be lengthy. He said the budget committee has been backed into a corner because of legislative deadlines but that he can’t allow the budget to be balanced by targeting higher education.

“If we continue to do that, we will have schools that will close,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, consulted with Groff on the delay and said it was a “positive first step in restoring sanity” to the budget process. He, too, said lawmakers shouldn’t make most cuts in higher education.

“The question now is not whether to cut, but who to cut,” Penry said.

Lawmakers have been talking all week about alternatives, and the budget committee heads back to work armed with more authority to tackle politically unpopular moves, including furloughing state employees and doing away with a long list of tax breaks.

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