Part I: Lack of Money, Abundance of Laws Drive Budget Process

Colorado Confidential has been running a series of articles about the $17 billion dollar state budget from the perspective of the Chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, Sen. Abel Tapia.

We’ve asked Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center and the Bell Action Network, to discuss the budget process “from the outside looking in.” This is the first section in this new three-part series. Here is an introduction to that conversation from Buchanan:

In discussing the state budget, there are two overarching facts we must keep in mind.

First, Colorado has one of the very lowest tax bases in the country and therefore one of the very leanest budgets every year. Regardless of how you measure it, Colorado has less money to work with than virtually any other state its size and therefore provides less support across the board for critical public services like education, health care or transportation.

Second, most of the state budget is effectively on autopilot, because an unusually large number of constitutional and statutory requirements direct how the money is to be spent. In addition to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), we have constitutional and statutory formulas that cap overall appropriations from the General Fund (regardless of need or available resources), mandate a minimum level of education funding, set automatic trigger points for transportation and capital construction funding, and more.

These factors combine to significantly tie the hands of the JBC and their colleagues when it comes to writing a budget that addresses current needs and priorities. This is the dominant reality of the state budget process in Colorado.

Q: Please describe the dilemmas JBC committee people and the legislature ultimately face when forced to cut one program and fund another knowing how many people rely on these services?

A: I think the biggest dilemma for budget writers is that major parts of the budget simply are off limits, for reasons that I mention above.

The priorities of our elected officials are less important in the face of rigid formulas and constitutional directives. When the JBC needs to make cuts, they usually fall disproportionately on programs and services that are not protected by constitutional mandates or other requirements. And when it has more money, it cannot necessarily restore the cuts it made earlier or otherwise put resources where they are most needed.

Both scenarios have played out over the last six years. For example, during the recent economic downturn (FY 2002-2005), the JBC cut higher education appropriations from the General Fund more than 20 percent (before inflation) even while enrollment increased by almost 18 percent.

This was not because the JBC members valued higher education less than other programs. It was because much of the rest of the budget was off limits.

With economic recovery and the passage of Referendum C, there has been more money to work with in recent years. Yet what cuts get restored still can have more to do with mandates than with existing needs or priorities.

With the proposed FY 2008 General Fund budget, higher education will finally catch up to where it was in FY 2002