Colorado House gives final approval to $18B budget

Kristen Wyatt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – An $18 billion state budget for next fiscal year that forces education cuts, reduced health services and less money for local government cleared the Colorado House on Thursday, largely leaving intact a bipartisan spending agreement that already cleared the Senate.

The budget for the next fiscal year cuts $250 million in K-12 education, cuts other state agencies across the board, from prisons to colleges, and again takes drilling and mining taxes from local governments to balance the books. The spending bills eliminate some taxes targeted by the GOP – such as taxes on agricultural products and online software sales – but Republicans abandoned efforts on repealing others, especially higher vehicle fees used to fund roadwork.

The 2011-12 budget passed the House 50-14 after a short debate.

Representatives argued over the budget bills late Wednesday until almost midnight, so Thursday morning’s final vote was in little doubt. Lawmakers from both parties got up and gave token resistance, but the debate was far from the pitched battle that took place the night before, when the chamber delayed a vote at one point to allow passions to cool.

“The art of compromise is what we do down here,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a top negotiator on the budget who prefaced his remarks by saying how painful the choices were in the face of a half-billion dollar shortfall for next year.

GOP lawmakers struck the same tone. Republican Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock pointed out to Democrats complaining about cuts to education and health care that Republicans gave up priorities, too.

“There are a lot of things in the budget that we don’t agree with, but we stood down,” she said. All 33 Republicans voted for the budget.

The budget is largely similar to one that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate earlier this week. After routine annual negotiations to rectify differences between the House and Senate, the spending plan will go to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who proposed many of the cuts earlier this year.

Both the House and Senate agreed with Hickenlooper to close a southeast Colorado prison to save money, though lawmakers put off the closure for six months. They also sided with the governor on boosting Colorado’s reserve fund.

In other measures to balance the books, lawmakers agreed to sweep some $33 million in tobacco taxes to cover ballooning Medicaid rolls. The shift means less money for programs offering free screenings for colorectal, breast and cervical cancer.

The budget also relies on more than $70 million in severance taxes, or taxes from mining and drilling, that would otherwise go to local governments affected by the industries. Those local governments say that will mean local roads go unrepaired and other projects dry up.

The largest cut by far went to K-12 education, which gobbles more state money than any other discretionary item. The $250 million cut comes in lower than the governor’s proposed $332 million cut. But local school districts have said the cut will require teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes and four-day school weeks in more areas.


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