Q&A: Talking Colorado budget, education with Rep. Millie Hamner
After the legislative session started on Wednesday, Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, has been busy as the new chair of the Joint Budget Committee. This session, she will work to form a state budget for the 2016-17 year that will go into effect in July. She is also looking to co-sponsor a bill this session with Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, to create a taskforce that will take a closer look at the state’s school finance formula.
We sat down with Hamner last week to talk about Colorado’s budget, deficits, and the issue of adequately funding our schools.
Summit Daily News: What are you working on now?
Hamner: The governor issues his budget in early November. We receive a briefing on each department from our Joint Budget Committee staff… Basically, it’s an opportunity for interaction from every part of the state government with the budget committee.
Sometimes, they’ll suggest that we carry legislation related to finances for each of the departments. So we have a running list right now of 50 bills that have been suggested. This Wednesday, we’re going to talk as a committee about the running list of 50 bills. Even if one person says no, then it doesn’t pass as a Joint Budget Committee and we’ll go onto the next title. All of that is pretty challenging.
SDN: How your experience been with the committee so far?
Hamner: It’s good teamwork. I’ve learned the most successful legislation comes when we work well together as Republicans and Democrats. It’s one of those things that I like about the budget committee. I think people like that. I think they appreciate that, because they don’t see that in Washington D.C.
SDN: What brought you into the legislative process?
Hamner: I got dragged into this! I was recruited—I was appointed to fill a vacancy. That was my last year as superintendent, so it ended a little sooner than I had expected.
I knew that a door would open, and I was thinking it would be more like a door at a university… so when this door opened, I had to do some soul searching to see if I could do it because it’s really different. I also knew that if I didn’t do it I would look back and feel that I had missed a huge opportunity. Some days I walk in the capitol and still can’t believe that I work there.
SDN: How will you create next year’s budget?
Hamner: Now that we’re in the middle of the budget year it’s time to make some adjustments—where does it look like we’re underspending or usually, overspending, and then we make those mid-year adjustments. Every change we make has to be approved by the legislature.
Once we’ve finished the supplementals, we’ll begin the process of figure-setting, where we actually set every line item in the state budget as a budget committee. There are six members, and for any item to pass we need a majority vote, so of the six members we need at least four people saying yes.
All of that leads up to the development of the long bill (the state’s budget). That will be developed by the end of March. That again goes to debate in the House and the Senate, comes back to us, and we have to balance to zero, and then send the budget to the governor.
SDN: What is driving Colorado’s deficit?
Hamner: Based on the governor’s first proposal to us, we’re $373 million short of balancing. There are a lot of things that are going on there. One, is that we’re trying to fund K-12… Every year, to keep up with inflation and to keep up with the population growth of students, it takes significant funds. That’s a primary driver of what’s causing us to be in this situation.
…Our budget’s growing by about 2.4 percent, about $457 million, which is great. What’s happening is that we have needs and obligations that exceed the revenue that we’ve brought in.
Some of those needs are like I said, funding education. We’re expecting to have to rebate $289 million to taxpayers. Where I come from is, and I think it’s going to be very confusing to the public to try to understand, how we could be having to cut our budget and not meet the needs that people are telling us are important, and yet they’re receiving a refund check. It just doesn’t add up.
SDN: What’s going to be cut?
Hamner: We’re in this complicated situation, and no one likes the cuts the governor has proposed. To balance the budget, he’s reducing funding to education, to higher education, he’s drastically reduced our capital construction budget so that we have maintenance cut in half… no salary increases for state employees, and then things start to get complicated as we start to talk about the hospital provider fee.
SDN: What about the hospital provider fee?
Hamner: “It’s a fee that we charged every hospital bed. The reason we did it is that people were coming into hospitals and couldn’t pay. And hospitals can’t turn them away.
We leverage federal dollars to double it, and give it right back to the hospitals, so it’s sort of just a pass-through.
What happened, is the revenue coming in escalated the pace at which we hit the TABOR cap. So the governor has proposed two things: One, don’t have it count toward the TABOR cap. … We have other funds like this; they’re called enterprises.
It’s a very political issue right now. Some would say it’s going around the intention of TABOR, but there are different points of view.
If we did that, we would not have to issue $289 million in refunds…The other thing he’s proposed, is to reduce the fee by $100 million. Collect less, then we have to refund less.
The heart of the matter is, do we respond to the needs the people have in a growing economy and a growing state or do we issue taxpayer refunds? I’m going to be in the heart of all of those kinds of discussions.
SDN: How are schools affected by the deficit?
Hamner: When we hit the recession — this was the year before I came to the legislature — they put something in place called the negative factor. …Every year that we have more students, the money that we have gets spread over more students, and that makes the negative factor grow.
They ran the school finance formula as if we were putting the increase on the entire program, and then put in the negative factor to subtract a bunch of money so that we could stay in balance. The way the state rationalized it is by interpreting Amendment 23, by saying the increase didn’t have to be on the total program — it could be on per-pupil funding, which is a smaller subset.
The districts want to see (funding) increase down the total program. We can’t afford it. There was an agreement to keep track of what the difference would have been had we been able to fund schools on the total picture, the total program. That’s the negative factor.
What the governor said is we can’t afford this policy of not letting the negative factor grow at a time when we have to refund taxpayer money, when we have all these obligations. So his proposal — and I’m sure he didn’t like to have to do this — said let’s let the negative factor grow by $50 million.
SDN: What about smaller districts?
Hamner: Most of the people of Colorado don’t understand school finance. It’s almost as if it was designed to be as complicated as we could make it.
We’re trying to figure out, is how should this formula be developed to be fair and equitable across the state of Colorado. Because right now we have districts that are going to their local tax base like we have here in Summit for additional funding, which is great, I fully support that concept.
But we have other very small districts and very low assessed valuation counties that just cannot. That’s not even an option. … So what’s happened is the disparity between the 178 districts continues to grow.
If you have a district of less than 1,000 students, and sometimes they’re as small as 100, you still need a highly qualified math teacher. So it’s very expensive. …It’s about at 4,000 students where a district can overcome some of the challenges of having that small size—A little bigger, than even, Summit County. Which is why Summit County’s been very fortunate to have additional support from the taxpayers here.
SDN: How has your past experience in education helped with this?
Hamner: It’s huge. I will be the first one to say I don’t know everything, but I have perspective from the classroom when I first started teaching in Colorado in Eagle County in the late 70s. … I see public administration through the lens of a teacher and from the lens of an administrator, so I think that really does help.
SDN: You’ve certainly accomplished a lot.
Hamner: I like to work — that’s the thing — so people sometimes use that. It’s hard for me to say no, because I get excited and interested in these diverse topics.
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