Colorado lawmakers begin debate on shrinking state budget |

Colorado lawmakers begin debate on shrinking state budget

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Lawmakers began debate on the state’s proposed $17.6 billion budget on Monday, promising to protect funding for public education and health care for children after they were told the slumping economy will force serious budget cuts for the second time in four years.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said the state was just beginning to recover after voters agreed to forego an expected $6 billion in tax surplus refunds to shore up state programs.

“This is a lot like deja vu all over again,” May told the Republican caucus.

Revenue forecasts warned last week that a downturn in the economy could cost the state $694 million over the next five years. Republicans said they want to make sure taxpayers aren’t stuck with higher fees and taxes at a time when they are struggling financially.

The Republicans also criticized a plan by the Ritter administration to add 1,334 more state workers for computer services and other expanded programs. That includes 21 new oil and gas drilling inspectors after Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, told lawmakers the state could do the job with existing staff.

“As Colorado families are struggling to make ends meet and to keep their homes, government continues to grow and continues to take more of their hard-earned money,” May said.

Democrats defended the decision to hire more state employees. They said many of those jobs involved contract workers hired by the previous administration who were actually full-time workers the state needed to do those jobs.

Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, also defended a decision to pull $37.5 million in financing earmarked to help build a science building on the Auraria campus that had already broken ground, which could doom the $120 million facility.

Riesberg said lawmakers had no choice after they learned of the projected revenue shortfall, which would have eaten up most of this year’s construction budget.

“You can’t just have half a building standing on a campus that can’t be finished and can’t be used,” Riesberg said.

The campus houses the University of Colorado-Denver, the university’s downtown Health Sciences Center facilities, the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State College of Denver.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson said the current science building is so unsafe that pregnant women are advised not to take classes there because of fumes from science experiments.

The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 also includes a 35 percent cut in travel and operating expenses for the state Board of Education following complaints from lawmakers over extravagant spending that included expensive meals, themed catering and valet parking.

Lawmakers said there was no way to compare this year’s budget with last year’s budget because they changed the way they accounted for double spending. Last year’s budget was $17.8 billion under the old accounting system.