Colo. Senate begins debating controversial budget
April 9, 2009
DENVER ” The Senate began debating a package of bills Thursday aimed at balancing next year’s budget after the Joint Budget Committee refused to make any additional cuts.
The package includes a $300 million cut to higher education, which some fear could lead to the closure of some colleges, although the budget committee hopes to make up for that cut by taking $500 million from the state-created Pinnacol Assurance.
Earlier in the day, Senate leaders asked the committee to go back to the drawing board to come up with other possible cuts in case the Pinnacol money doesn’t materialize. Frustrated committee members met for about 40 minutes but didn’t consider cuts proposed by other lawmakers, including furloughs for state employees, many of which committee members had previously considered and rejected.
Both Democratic Senate President Peter Groff and Minority Leader Josh Penry wanted the committee to consider those other options to avoid the higher education cut in case the Pinnacol issue lands in court. Normally, budget changes are considered once the budget bill is debated by either the full House or Senate. But Groff said he couldn’t vote for the bill as it was because there was a chance the higher education cut would stand.
“If we continue to do that, we will have schools that will close,” Groff said.
Budget committee member Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, said the budget already included some drastic cuts, such as not opening a new prison in Canon City. He said the budget committee had done its job and it was up to senators to offer any changes they want to.
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He also criticized Penry, whom he said was driving the push for more cuts, saying he should “jump in a lake.”
“Tell him to go first and all the lemmings will follow,” said Marostica, who has often been at odds with other Republicans on budget issues.
Budget committee members have been meeting since November to develop a budget for this year and the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. They twice delayed the introduction of next year’s budget as they waited for and then responded to a gloomy economic forecast. Legislative economists now predict a deeper and longer recession than originally expected and say tax revenue will decline by $900 million between this year and next year.
The committee closed in on higher education to make $300 million in cuts to balance the budget. It’s a frequent target during downturns because it’s the only large state operation that isn’t protected either by constitutional spending limits, like public schools, or federal mandates and funding, like Medicaid.
Plan B was to go after $500 million from the surplus of Pinnacol, a state-created worker’s compensation insurance company, and use most of it to ensure funding for state colleges and universities. But Pinnacol and businesses are fighting the move, and Pinnacol has threatened to sue if the state tries to take the money.
Penry agreed with Groff that lawmakers shouldn’t rely so heavily on higher education to make cuts.
“The question now is not whether to cut, but who to cut,” Penry said.
Democratic senators gave the budget committee the backing to consider the politically unpopular move of ending tax breaks on everything from cigarettes to Colorado capital gains. But Keller said more time is needed to study which ones should stay and which should go. She said that could still possibly happen during a special session of the full Legislature this summer.
She also said a smaller study committee would look at the issue and make recommendations for lawmakers to act on in January, too late to affect the next budget year.