(April 14) – Overcoming one of the major hurdles on the path toward a successful legislative session, House and Senate conferees reached agreement today on a state budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which begins in July.
“We have a budget that invests in the future of Colorado,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, vice chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee, which met this afternoon as a conference committee to hammer out differences between versions of the 2015-16 “long bill” adopted by the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.
“This was a delicate balancing act,” Rep. Hamner said. “We were able to increase funding for education, child welfare, transportation, senior services and capital construction while setting aside nearly $245 million for refunds to taxpayers as a result of Colorado reaching the TABOR cap.”
“This is a budget we can all be proud of,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, who also serves on the JBC. “No one got everything they wanted, but on balance we have a state budget that reflects the priorities of the people of Colorado.”
The Colorado constitution requires the state legislature to pass a balanced budget every year. In recession years when tax revenues fall, this can mean severe cuts to state funding for education and transportation.
But in years like this one, after several cycles of economic improvement and rising revenues, state spending is capped by the constitutional restrictions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which requires refunds to taxpayers when revenues increase at a rate higher than the sum of population growth plus inflation.
Other statutory and constitutional obligations required this year’s budget to boost spending by $613 million for a “rainy day” reserve, $209 million for K-12 education, $184 million for Medicaid, $126 million for senior homestead property tax exemptions and $63 million for prisons, leaving little discretionary spending even though this year’s budget includes $10.9 billion in general fund spending.
With the remaining dollars, the House and Senate have agreed to:
· Commit $128 million for transportation projects, the first time in six years the state has been able to afford to spend general fund money to repair and upgrade our roads and bridges
· Boost higher education funding by $105 million to reduce tuition increases
· Buy down the “negative factor,” the state’s arrears on its K-12 education obligations, by $25 million
· Fund a 1.7 percent rate increase for social services providers to help expand the provider network and improve access to quality care.
· Commit $7 million for a long-overdue increase in the number of child welfare workers.
Today’s budget compromise was weakened by the 3-3 deadlock that killed $5 million in funding to continue a program that has made contraceptives available to low-income Colorado women, lowering the teenage birth rate by 40 percent and saving the state from having to deal with the far higher social and economic costs of teenage pregnancies.
Also left out was $1 million for track improvements to help keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief running through Colorado.