Legislators head back to chopping block | SummitDaily.com

Legislators head back to chopping block

DENVER – State legislators grappling with this year’s budget deficit could be in for more bad news.

Legislators learned earlier this month that on top of $850 million in cuts they’ve already made to the 2002-2003 budget, they might need to slice an additional $48 million.

Two weeks ago, legislators finished making the $850 million in cuts to the 2002-03 budget and started working on next year’s budget, from which they need to cut an estimated $869 million.

Republican Sen. Dave Owen, chief budget writer and chairman of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), told legislators March 4 the state might have to make the additional cuts because January revenues are coming in lower than originally anticipated.

And February and March are “significantly down,” Democratic Sen. Joan Fitz-

Gerald said, so the cuts could be even greater.

“We’re hearing now that ($48 million) is a very conservative number compared to what it might actually be,” said Democratic Sen. Joan Fitz-

Gerald, who represents Summit County. “It could be up to $180 million between now and June. People are stroking out over all the things that are being cut.”

State law prohibits cuts to Medicaid and K-12 education – and those two items make up 60 percent of the budget. That means whatever cuts are made must be taken from the remaining departments.

“We’re talking $60 million a month for the next three months for departments that only have three months left in their budget years,” Fitz-

Gerald said.

She said the deep cuts they have already made – and those they have yet to face – are sending the state budget on a downward spiral.

“It’s pretty grim,” Fitz-

Gerald said. “At some point, we’ll be laying off people and cutting whole departments.”

The news of additional cuts to this year’s budget came just as legislators were beginning to look for ways to cut $869 million from the 2003-2004 budget. That fiscal year begins July 1.

State Attorney General Ken Salazar has proposed changes to TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights approved by voters in 1992. The Constitutional amendment is, arguably, best known for the wording that prohibits the state from increasing taxes without a vote of the people and a section that requires the state to return extra taxes instead of saving those funds for an economic downturn.

But it also mandates that whenever budgets are cut, the following year’s budget will remain the same.

“We’ve been comparing TABOR to Dillon Reservoir; that’s where the state budget is now,” Fitz-Gerald said. “As the lake goes down, TABOR forces us to take down a portion of the dam that would hold more water, so if the rains come, all the extra stuff will spill over – and we’re forever at this lower level.”

She noted, however, that the lake actually might look better than the budget.

Fitz-Gerald said Gov. Owens denied a request from state university officials to increase tuition at state universities by 10 percent to recoup funding they lost in the first round of budget cuts.

“He says no more than 7 percent,” Fitz-Gerald said. “We’re going to cripple our flagship institutions. CU and CSU have taken inordinate amounts of cuts. I don’t know how long they can expect to remain top institutions. It troubles me greatly. And apparently we’re not finished with this.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.

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