Colorado Dems, GOP talk about changing budget bill
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” Republican and Democratic lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise on a proposal to change Colorado state budget limits, an issue which has sharply divided the two parties for weeks.
The measure (Senate Bill 223) would end automatic transfers to transportation when the economy is good and give lawmakers the flexibility to spend more on things like safety net programs and higher education. It would avoid leaving the state’s budget stuck at recessionary levels once the economy recovers.
Majority Democrats were to hold a final vote on the bill in the Senate on Tuesday but delayed it to consider a proposal from Minority Leader Josh Penry. His offer came a week after Republicans protested the largely Democratic bill with a 10-hour, overnight filibuster.
Penry proposed temporarily suspending the budget limits, rather than ending them altogether.
Lawmakers are also looking at an accounting move involving education funding that would allow the state to spend an extra $400 million a year when revenues bounce back, rather than refunding it to taxpayers. Some of that could be used to protect transportation funding Republicans fear would be lost under the change.
Legislative leaders met Tuesday to discuss the ideas. No deal was reached but Penry said he later talked again with bill sponsor Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.
“There is a genuine effort behind the scenes to work something out,” Penry said.
Under a law passed in 1991, the operating side of the state’s general fund budget, which covers things like public schools, prisons and higher education, can only grow up to 6 percent above the previous year. Any leftover money must be spent on transportation and building projects.
The bill would eliminate those requirements and allow lawmakers to spend tax dollars wherever they wish. It wouldn’t allow the government to spend any more money than under the current rules because the Taxpayers Bill of Rights limits how much tax revenue the state can keep.
Because of the recession, this year there’s only enough money available to increase the budget by about 4 percent. That means next year the budget could only grow 6 percent above this year’s lower amount. Without a change, bill backers say that cumulative effect will hamstring the operating budget even after revenues rebound with the economy.
Republicans, meanwhile, are wary of spending more tax dollars on programs run by state workers because they say that’s more painful to cut during downturns than simply not spending on roads.
Penry has proposed a time-out on the 6 percent limit for an unspecified number of years and allowing some money that would have gone to transportation to be socked away in a reserve fund. That extra money could be used to help prevent deep cuts in the next downturn.
Morse said Penry’s proposal wouldn’t provide any money to help restore services that will be cut because of the current recession. But he’s thrilled Democrats and Republicans are at least talking about reaching a possible compromise.
“It’s too soon to say that we will but at least the possibility exists,” Morse said.
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