This is the second in a three-part interview with Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Abel Tapia, who sat down earlier this week with Colorado Confidential to talk about some of the complexities of Colorado’s budget, which was unveiled last week after months of work and fine-tuning.
CoCo: We’ve been talking about the state’s $17 billion proposed budget – what Gov. Bill Ritter has termed a “moral document.” But how much morality can really be incorporated in a budget that already has so many requirements, including those brought on as a result of TABOR, Gallagher, Amendment 23 and so on. Isn’t there so very little wiggle room left over to fund other stuff?
Sen. Tapia: Without a doubt, without a doubt.
Sen. Tapia: When you’re talking the Medicaid population, or K-12 education, it’s about the number of people who go in for those services, and we have to fund to that. If it’s Medicare or Medicaid, that’s all prescriptive – we don’t [decrease] that. Now, one way we can change it is we can expand it. Over other years we’ve expanded the Medicaid population to something like 200 percent of Medicaid levels, so were trying to get the working poor into that and that costs us money.
But the bulk of the money is just dealing with caseload population. When you talk about K-12 education you’re talking about the number of kids who go to school. For every child that goes in we have to pay an average of 6,000. Well, if our population grows by 2,000 more kids, that leaves us with very little flexibility to say, for example, well, we want so much money to go into this particular school lunch program.
So we can tackle a lot of the fringe end things but the majority of the budget, it runs on its own.
CoCo: We’re almost to the end of the Referendum C money – 2010 is right around the corner. What are your thoughts on where we go once that money is gone?
Sen. Tapia: Where we saw the biggest benefit of Referendum C was last year and the year before that. We really saw the benefit of that because it was new money, it was brand new money that we were allowed to spend that we didn’t have before.
Once we decided where to spend the money – a third of it went to higher ed, a third of it went to K-12, a third of it went to health care. Once we put it into the budget it became part of the growth. It was part of base building, so this year we didn’t have any Referendum C money. It went to building the base, and every year we’ve been spending up to the six percent so that our base is higher.
Where we got in trouble with TABOR was the ratchet down [effect]. So right now we’re ratcheting up, so five years from now the Referendum C dollars wont be there, but the money will be within the six percent because the caseload will grow and the revenue will grow because it’s part of the base. So I don’t see us falling off the cliff. We’re not going to have new money, we’re going to have existing money, but it’s all going to be built into the base.
CoCo: Beyond 2010 will there be, in your mind, a need to go back to voters to seek a Referendum C-like extension?
Sen. Tapia: I think there is going to be. We’re going to have to make a really good case [with voters]. Even with what we did with Referendum C, even with how frugal we’ve been – and we can show we’ve really put it in the right places – we’re still number 48th in all states in money for higher education. We’re still 48th in the number of states in K-12 education.
So if we hadn’t done Referendum C we would have been 50th. Kentucky would have beat us. Not that I have anything against Kentucky, but Kentucky is generally at the very bottom.
So at one point or another we’re going to have to ask the question, if we really are concerned about education, we truly are considering being the world’s leader, it takes money. We’re going to have to face the fact that we don’t want to be 48th among 50 states, we want to be number 25 – we ought to shoot for being number 25. And people will help us if we tell them how we’re going to spend the money.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment of this series of budget talks with Sen. Tapia. Next up: What to expect from future budgets, and the argument for piecemealing taxpayer-funded projects. Click here to read the first portion of the interview, which focused heavily on the shifting priorities for corrections and prison growth funding.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org