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Colorado Senate backs changing budget rules

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” The Colorado Senate backed a proposal Tuesday that would end automatic funding transfers to transportation and construction projects and allow lawmakers to spend more on other state services, such as safety net programs and higher education.

The Senate split 21-14 along party lines, with all Democrats voting for it and all Republicans voting against, sending the measure (Senate Bill 228) to the House. GOP senators accused Democrats of violating the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and of committing a “bait and switch” for ending spending limits that protect transportation funding weeks after they voted to increase vehicle registration fees to raise $250 million a year to pay for bridge and road repairs.

“That is the one-two punch that this Legislature is poised to give to Colorado taxpayers,” said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. He said Democrats have been emboldened by the “TABOR slayers” on the state Supreme Court, which upheld a property tax measure expected to raise $1.7 billion for schools over 11 years on Monday.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said Democrats will provide money for roads but said the state also needs to consider spending more on treating the mentally ill, helping the developmentally disabled and making sure state colleges and universities don’t have to cut enrollment.

“It’s true this bill represents a big change. It’s a needed change, but it is big,” he said.

Megan Ferland, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the budget limits have made it harder to spend more on preschool programs, health care and child care to help the 190,000 children living in poverty in the state. She said such aid early on would help boost children’s chances of performing well in school and staying out of trouble later.

For example, Colorado lawmakers have focused on providing preschool slots largely to low-income 4-year-olds, and about 70 percent of those eligible are enrolled in such programs. However, only about 19 percent of eligible 3-year-olds are enrolled, according to the group.

“The boats that we miss right now, we have to live with for the next 60 to 70 years,” Ferland said following a press conference held by bill supporters at the Capitol.

At issue is a state law passed in 1991 that limits the operating side of the state’s budget, including services like higher education, schools and prisons, from growing by more than 6 percent above what was spent the previous year. Any tax dollars left over after that must be spent first on transportation and then on construction projects.

The bill would eliminate those requirements and allow lawmakers to spend tax dollars wherever they wish.

Republicans accused Democrats of setting Colorado down the path to California-style budget problems by getting rid of the limits. The proposal won’t allow the state to spend any more money that it already does, however, because TABOR limits how much tax revenue the state can keep. But Republicans say cutting back social programs in future downturns will be more difficult than simply cutting off surplus money spent on roads.

Because of the recession, this year the state has only enough money to grow the operating budget by about 4 percent, rather than the maximum 6 percent. Under the spending rules, this year’s new 4 percent “ceiling” will become the “floor” from which next year’s budget can grow. Without a change, Morse argued that cumulative “ratchet effect” will gradually lower the operating budget’s growth and automatically pump more tax dollars into transportation and construction once tax revenues rebound.


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