Democratic lawmakers prepare to make budget cuts, scrap 2020 priorities

Colorado lawmakers plan to reconvene on May 18. They'll face a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 response

COVID-19
Lawmakers recessed for two weeks on March 14, 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. When they return, they'll face a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado lawmakers have been left with a state budget crippled by the economic fallout of COVID-19, forcing them to all but start from scratch when they return to the state Capitol next month for the second half of the session. 

They will be working to cut existing programs in an effort to fill an estimated $3.2 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year, sparing almost no state program, including already underfunded K-12 schools, and likely nixing some of their key policy priorities for the 2020 legislative session. 

“We face really, really difficult decisions,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, during a call with reporters on Thursday. 

In addition to cuts to K-12, Becker said programs slated to be cut include, “services to vulnerable populations, like Coloradans with intellectual and developmental disabilities, people relying on social services, child welfare, seniors, support for pregnant women, we’re gonna see a decline in support for our universities…” 

“Not a pretty picture,” she said. 

The estimated budget shortfall is in part due to a loss in state revenue after personal income and sales taxes dropped during the COVID-19 response, in which Gov. Jared Polis called for businesses to be shut and people to stay home in the name of public health and safety. Legislative Council staff expects state government to receive about $1.7 billion from the federal CARES Act to help offset the shortfall. 

In addition to the proposed cuts that Becker mentioned, staff with the Joint Budget Committee released 27 documents this week outlining a series of cuts that could be made to just about every department in the state. The spending reductions include rolling back full-day kindergarten, postponing the implementation of new oil and gas regulations, slashing immunization outreach, and cutting salary increases for correctional officers. The list goes on. The Colorado Sun reports that all of these cuts would reduce spending by about $1 billion, short of the expected need. 

The Colorado constitution requires lawmakers to pass a balanced budget, meaning the state can’t spend more than it collects in taxes. And before the fallout of COVID-19, there was already little room in Colorado’s $30-plus billion budget for key Democratic priorities. The majority party’s priorities included passing the “Colorado option” health insurance plan and a paid family and medical leave program

Becker said more than half of the legislation lawmakers tabled when they recessed on March 14 will be scrapped. 

On paid family leave, legislation six years in the making, she said, “The need for it is highlighted in this time. But also the difficulty of getting everyone on the same page is highlighted during this time. … I think it’s going to be really hard to get done.” 

On a state-run health insurance plan known as the “Colorado option,” which was shaping up to be a bitter battle between Democrats and hospitals, Becker said, “Public option may not be realistic right now.” 

In summary, she said, “Everything is on the table right now. We are not going to rule out anything.” 

The legislature reconvenes on May 18. 

John is a contributing writer for The Colorado Independent, covering energy, environment and criminal justice. Email him at Herrick.johnny(at)gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @herrickjohnny.

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