Part II: State Budget in Dollars and Sense; Ref. C

The State of Colorado doesn’t have enough money to support services such as education, health care or transportation because of its low tax base and complications from constitutional and statutory requirements that dictate how money is spent.

In an interview with Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center, Colorado Confidential takes a look at the tribulations the Joint Budget Committee confronts when setting the state budget. Below is Part II of three.Q: In your opinion, how much weight does the committee put into department heads making an especially compelling verbal case for their funding?

My sense is that the committee members give a lot of weight to the requests of department heads. In preparing to write the budget, the JBC meets directly with each department head to learn of the department’s activities and goals and discuss the executive director’s priorities and concerns.

Obviously the committee must look at the entire state budget, while a department head’s perspective will be much narrower. But I think the committee understands and respects the role of department heads in the process, and unless they have reason to question the department’s priorities or management of funds, I think they honestly try to help department heads get the resources they need to do their jobs.

That said, the committee obviously must balance all the needs of the various departments in the context of a very small budget and all the other constraints we have discussed. This means the committee must make tough decisions that not everyone will like, or even understand.

Sometimes it seems as though the JBC is attempting to micro-manage a department or agency. But all of this usually is in the context of trying to fulfill as many requests and priorities as possible given resources available.

Q: Ref. C is going to expire someday and TABOR continues to put stress on the budget. What should be presented to the voter to clear up this budget mess for good?

The budget before the Legislature right now is the third of only five that will be written under the Ref C “time out,” so it is not too soon at all to begin the discussion about what comes next. While a tremendous victory, Ref C was a temporary fix to a problem that ultimately requires a permanent and comprehensive solution.

But figuring out “what comes next” is a discussion that is likely to unfold slowly over the next few years. This is not because the options are all that complex or difficult to understand. In fact, I could offer several right now, each of which I am convinced would help solve the problem as I see it.

But as with Referendum C, the challenge is not coming up with solutions that will work. The challenge is finding one that can also gain the support of a broad cross section of Coloradans.

Whether that solution involves removing restrictions from the Constitution, raising taxes, a combination of both, or something no one has yet thought of, in Colorado it will have to be passed by a majority of voters. And one of the most important lessons from Referendum C is how hard it is to do something like that.

With Referendum C we had by far the broadest coalition this state has ever seen