House approves $20.5B Colorado budget for next year

Ivan Moreno
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – After bitter finger-pointing, the Colorado House on Friday passed a $20.5 billion state budget for next year, sending more money to public schools, paying down some pension debt, and earmarking money to wildfire victims.

The spending plan cleared the House in a 45-18 vote, with only nine Republicans voting yes – underscoring a big contrast from last year when the budget had near unanimous support in the Colorado Legislature.

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year begins July 1 and will increase spending per pupil at public schools, but the exact figure will be determined later. State employees will also get a pay increase of 2 percent – the first in four years. And lawmakers agreed to use $2.8 million to pay victims of last year’s Lower North Fork Fire in the foothills southwest of Denver, which was started by a state prescribed burn.

Lawmakers voted on the budget after lashing out at each other, with Republicans in the minority accusing Democrats of playing games with GOP amendments on Thursday evening.

At issue was one Republican proposal for 5 percent across-the-board spending cuts. Democrats easily defeated it. But knowing they had enough votes to kill it, they brought it up again later, this time to try to get Republicans on the record voting for it.

“That is decidedly partisan, to say ‘We killed your amendment, but we’re going bring it up again to put it in your face and spike it a second time,’ is not bipartisan,” said Republican Rep. Mark Waller, the House GOP leader.

Speaker Mark Ferrandino countered by telling Republicans that they’re not blameless.

“Partisan politics gets played down here. We all know that. We all do it,” he said. He told Republicans that “we should not forget history” and reminded them about how, as the majority party in the House last year, Republicans killed civil unions legislation by refusing to bring it up for a floor vote.

Ultimately, Waller was one of nine Republicans to vote for the budget. As reasons for his approval, Waller cited budget provisions that pay down $140 million in state debt for police and firefighter pensions, and $30 million for water storage projects in rural Colorado.

Both chambers have passed the budget, but they still must rectify differences in the spending plan. Those differences include a House amendment that took nearly $500,000 from private prisons to pay for more parole officers. Lawmakers who proposed the change cited the shooting death of Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, who authorities suspect was killed by a parolee who recently slipped through the cracks in the criminal justice system.

The money for wildfire compensation is another difference that will need to be rectified, as well as adding $1.5 million to the state’s film incentives program.

General fund expenditures, which lawmakers control, were expected to be about $8.2 billion next year, compared with $7.6 billion in the current budget year. The state’s total budget, which includes federal money and cash funds, would be about $20.5 billion.

The biggest areas of general fund spending would continue to be K-12 schools, at about $3.1 billion, and the department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which administers Medicaid, at nearly $2.1 billion.