DENVER– Republican lawmakers furious with the $18.2 billion budget presented Friday in the senate here said the proposal failed to limit government spending and that it amounted to another move toward socialism. Exasperated Democrats argued that the budget cut millions of dollars from programs, including vital education and medical programs in the state.
“Liberty means less control over the people of Colorado. I see in this bill one more step toward that direction of socialism. I don’t see any other terms [to describe it]… I find that regrettable” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R- Berthoud. He said the budget was a numbers shell game that balanced the budget by expanding federal debt.
Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, pushed back.
“You can trot out banners and terms of ‘socialism’ and say ‘This is a shame.’ But you know what? Shame on us for not listening to the values of the people who asked us to do something different… let’s try to find common ground to make the investments that matter.”
Romer quoted someone he said was a business owner concerned that Colorado ranked 49th in the Country in funding for many basic services. Romer said Colorado lawmakers need to see education, health centers, and universities as investments in the state’s future.
“This is absolutely the greatest state in the nation, but we can not be the greatest state in the nation if we are ranked 48th, 49th, and 50th in everything characterized by a CEO as an investment,” he said.
Senate Minority leader Josh Penry, Grand Junction, pointed to increases in the budget as evidence that Democrats weren’t being honest in their descriptions.
“At the end of the day there are facts… Fact: this budget is 6 percent larger than last year’s. Fact: this budget blesses the hire of 700 new state employees. Fact: this budget relies almost entirely on one time funds, gimmicks, or federal bailout dollars…. our economists tell us that next year we face a $1 billion structural spending deficit.”
Democrats suggested Penry was being disingenuous and explained that his perceived increases were based on hiring required by law and that some allotments were re-funding of programs back-filled last year by stimulus money.
Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, told the Colorado Independent that Penry’s claim of 6 percent growth is nonsense. The budget grew by 2 percent or by $55 million but that much of that came from refunding mandatory programs such as higher education and prisons supported with one-time federal money last year. The state Department of Corrections, for example, got $89 million to restore federal funds and Medicaid received $101.5 million.
Morse said the appropriations summary shows the state will spend $19 billion this year, which appears to be a $412 million increase from last year. The devil is in the details, he said. Nearly $265 million of the budget consists of “re-appropriated” funds– or money that goes into the General Fund and is then re-alloted and so effectively counted twice. He said FASTER and transportation funds amount to almost $200 million but much of that comes from fees. Throw in revenue increases that will come from tuition increases for higher education and the $92 million that will come from the homestead tax exemption that will be cut later this session, and you will have a clearer picture of the real cuts made in the budget.
“If you count [those figures], then government has shrunk by $150 million,” he said.
In an email to supporters, Morse elaborates:
Last year’s general fund budget was about $7.5 billion dollars. This year it is about $7.0 billion. We didn’t get to spend all $7.5 billion last year, we had to reduce it to about $6.7 billion. So, depending on your political motives, you can claim this year’s spending is up ($6.7 to $7.0) or down ($7.5 to $7.0). I will let you be the judge.
Romer said lawmakers appointed to balance the budget have been anything but timid in making cuts.
“At the end of the day there aren’t very many cuts left. We need to engage the public and ask what kind of state we want? Do we want gridlock? Do we want an uneducated youth work force? Do we want to close our higher education institutions? Do we want to lose the best medical school west of the Mississippi? My answer is no. I stand here saying I want to invest and I am proud of it.”
Ideological warrior Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, was not persuaded. Schultheis pointed out that, because he’s retiring, this is his last vote on a state budget.
“I was hoping that out of ten years in the legislature, I would actually be able to vote for a budget that… actually recognized the reality of our fiscal situation. I couldn’t vote for it when the Republicans were in charge…. I can’t vote for this now. I consider this a dark day for Colorado.”
The budget passed the Senate and will next be heard in a session of the state’s Joint Budget Committee.