Gov. Jared Polis stood in the Greenlee Elementary School library to announce that free, all-day kindergarten — his No. 1 campaign promise — was on its way to reality.
“Every single child deserves a strong start,” the governor said late last week as he was flanked by lawmakers, educators and students. The current kindergarten system doesn’t treat students equally, he said. “What you get depends on chance — where you live, how much money you have.”
Polis’s announcement came after the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) set aside $185 million in next year’s budget, which he says is enough to fully pay for projected enrollment across the state.
But it took the JBC weeks to find room in the $30 billion state budget for the plan, lawmakers say, and it came at the expense of K-12 education, repairs to government buildings, and other state programs Democrats consider to be underfunded.
“The governor, with the kindergarten request, put pressure on every part of the budget,” said Rep. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “So we’re having to make some tough trade-offs.”
A revenue forecast released earlier this month projects a $1 billion-plus surplus for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which begins in July, due to continued economic growth. Despite the size of the surplus, economists doubt it will be large enough to trigger refunds under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
Most of the $1 billion surplus is already spoken for. On top of the $185 million for all-day kindergarten, budget writers want to spend $336 million on K-12 public schools, which Democrats say remain underfunded; $230 million on transportation, a dent in the multi-billion dollar backlog; and $121 million on higher education tuition, which will hold tuition flat. Those expenditures — combined with inflation and population growth, and some smaller budget line items, such as expanded mental health services — eat up all but about $40 million of the surplus.
That $40 million will have to stretch far and wide, Democrats and the governor are discovering less than five months after they swept into office. Initiatives Democrats promised during their campaigns, including criminal justice reforms and efforts to expand health care and opioid use disorder treatment, will be competing for cash.
Universal kindergarten was one of the few Polis pet programs the JBC funded, but even so, it gave him about $67 million less than he wanted. He also asked for $13 million to expand public preschool slots for at-risk children, which the JBC, made up of four Democrats and two Republicans, did not approve in the first draft of the budget, which is expected to be released as soon as today.
Budget writers also denied the governor’s requests for an additional $20 million to implement the Colorado Water Plan to help avoid future water shortages; $1.3 million to drive down the costs of prescription drugs; $3.1 million to cover a paid family leave program for state employees; and $11 million to move prisoners around the state.
Withholding this funding could mean good news for Democrats seeking funding for their own policy priorities, such as school safety measures, substance use disorder treatment, and a state-run paid family leave program for all employees, funded mostly through employee and employer contributions initially, but which could require general fund money initially.
There is a general recognition that the $40 million set aside will not cover all proposed legislation.
“I think it forces us to prioritize a little bit about our major goals,” said Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada who sits on the JBC.
The projected revenue surplus, slightly less what lawmakers worked with last year, was one reason Polis and lawmakers were able to move ahead with free, all-day kindergarten. But the economic boon may not last. State economists forecast a cooling economy in Colorado due to the waning influence of the federal tax cuts, labor shortages and President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. This prospect has budget writers worried about starting new programs this year that might have to be cut in the event of a recession.
Zenzinger said she is concerned the governor’s new kindergarten program may cut into K-12 education funding in future years. The state underfunds K-12 schools by about $672 million annually, which is one reason why nearly half of public school districts are turning to a four-day school week.
Complicating matters is that much of any expected surplus in future years is already allocated. The state may have to dish out hundreds of millions of dollars to the state pension plan, known as PERA, beginning in the summer of 2020; Medicaid is set to continue expanding; and there’s the possibility the state will have to begin making $250 million annual bond payments for transportation projects.
In an effort to free up some extra cash, lawmakers are moving ahead with a plan to reform the TABOR permanently. The proposal would take taxpayer refunds and automatically channel them to K-12 and higher education and transportation.
Budget aside, Democrats are working through internal divisions on a number of other issues.
An immigrant rights bill was killed before it was even introduced, in part due to pushback from Polis who has promised not to enact “sanctuary” policies, which are loosely defined. An effort to repeal the death penalty, the passage of which seemed certain earlier this session, is now in a holding pattern. A bill that would provide people addicted to opioids a safe place to use and seek resources to get into treatment was also scuttled after several Democrats wavered on the idea.
Meanwhile, Democrats are also fending off the threats of recalls over a law that would have Colorado join a national compact to elect the U.S. president using a national popular vote, and bills to stiffen oil and gas regulations and establish a “red flag” law that would allow law enforcement to confiscate a person’s firearms if a judge deems the person is a threat to themselves or others.
The Senate approved the red flag bill on a voice vote late Friday after Democrats rejected several GOP efforts to drastically alter the bill and stall debate. Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, requested the journal, which includes the day’s notes, motions and votes, be read at length.
Republicans have been trying to stall debate on a number of bills they oppose, which could run out the clock at the end of the session. Earlier this session, they invoked their right to have a 2,000-page bill read aloud at length. Democrats responded by using multiple computers to do the reading, which cut down the time spent on the task from days to hours.
These stall tactics matter because the 120-day session ends on Sine Die, or May 3. Last year, lawmakers wrapped up the budget just minutes before midnight on the last day.
This year, lawmakers may plan a little extra time.
“We have done the calculations. It would take 20 hours to have the budget read at length,” Zenzinger said. “I think we’re gonna pass a budget.”