DENVER — If there’s nothing else state lawmakers do each legislative session, the one bill they are constitutionally required to pass is a balanced budget.
The process is a long one, involving months of meetings between members of the Joint Budget Committee, expansive spreadsheets and lots of numbers. Nevertheless, it is the most important bill to come out of the Colorado Capitol each year.
After a quicker and more robust economic recovery than expected following the COVID-19 pandemic, this time around, state lawmakers are debating how to spend a historic $36.4 billion budget. In November, Governor Jared Polis released his proposal for how to allocate that money.
The Joint Budget Committee reviewed the request and then put together its own spending list, which the Colorado House of Representatives debated last week, offering dozens of changes.
On Wednesday, it was the Colorado Senate's turn to debate the budget. Lawmakers grilled burgers and hot dogs on the balcony of the Capitol outside the Senate Chamber while they dug into the specifics of the roughly 600-page bill.
“Colorado, I think, is in a good place. With our post-pandemic economic situation, which is great news, it also means that we can make some really important investments that we otherwise typically couldn't do,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver.
The proposed budget increases spending for just about every area of the state, from agriculture to veterans affairs. Here are a few key parts of the bill.
One of the largest parts of the state budget is education spending. The proposed budget calls for $7.19 billion to go to K-12 education, an 11.7 percent increase from the previous year. Average per-pupil spending would increase to roughly $9,500 per student, which is still thousands less than the national average but still hundreds of dollars more than last year.
The budget stabilization factor, otherwise known as the negative factor, would also be significantly decreased this year to the lowest rate it’s been in more than a decade. The negative factor is the money the state owes to schools in funding but has not been able to pay due to other budgetary needs.
“We're reducing the negative factor by about $250 million,” said Hansen.
The Joint Budget Committee's budget calls for the negative factor to be reduced to $321 million, down from $503 million this year.
Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, says with this year’s historic budget, he would have strongly preferred to fully fund schools. However, Rankin’s fellow Joint Budget Committee members decided a gradual approach was more appropriate. Still, he says the committee made real progress in education funding.
Special education would see an $80 million influx of cash under the proposal, which equates to a nearly 40 percent increase in funding. Hundreds of millions in other funding is also being set aside for education bills currently making their way through the state legislature.
Higher education, meanwhile, would see $5.4 billion in the next fiscal year with the current version of the bill, equating to a 4.3 percent increase overall.
“We went way beyond what the governor's initial request was to fund higher education and student financial aid,” said Rankin.
That money could help reduce tuition costs for students in the state.
The single largest increase in funding would go to early childhood education to fund the creation of a new department that was approved by lawmakers last year. It is set to receive $8.19 million next year under the proposal, a 2,409.8 percent increase in funding. The department will be tasked with helping stand-up statewide universal preschool for four-year-olds by next year.
On the healthcare front, the legislature is planning roughly $14.2 billion in funding, or a 5.4 percent increase, from this year.
The funding primarily focuses on Medicare and Medicaid state spending, which Hansen says needed to increase this year since federal funding is expected to drop.
“The federal legislation really helped the states in this part of our budget with enhanced federal match over the last year and a half. That's going to be winding down. That means the state needs to be ready to take on some more of those costs," Hansen said. "However, there's also going to be an evaluation of who is eligible for Medicare, Medicaid."
Part of the budget calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for all employees in Medicaid and community-based services in the state.
Behavioral health would also see an increase in spending of roughly $13 million for Medicaid behavioral health programs.
Other tidbits in the budget
Just about every agency would see an increase of funding of some sort. The Department of Corrections would see a $993.36 million, or a 2.7 percent increase, in its budget. Roughly $5.87 million of that money would go to increasing medical caseloads for pharmaceuticals and for non-emergency appointments that were deferred due to COVID-19.
The budget also calls for $1 million to be spent on the purchase of three new vehicles to transport State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams (SWIFT) so they can help fight fires that pop up in the state.
The Department of Public Health and Environment is expected to see a 9.5 percent increase in its budget, or roughly $756.29 million. Of that, roughly $43.34 million would go to the Air Pollution Control Division, which has been a sticking point in some of the debates.
Meanwhile, public safety in the state is set to receive $565.1 million, or a 4.2 percent increase, in its funding to help with things like crime prevention through grant programs.
“We're partnering closely with local law enforcement and state law enforcement," Hansen said. "We've increased the resources at Colorado Bureau of Investigations, at the State Patrol, really trying to make sure we're meeting this moment when it comes to public safety."
The budget also makes room for $4.7 million to be used to increase the security of the governor and Colorado Capitol, as well as $32,000 for Secretary of State Jena Griswold to hire more security for herself.
Almost as important as what state lawmakers are spending is what they are not spending. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside more than $2 billion for its rainy day fund in case the economy takes a downturn, and another $840 million for the education fund reserve.
“It's so important that those reserves are in there in case we have to do what we did in 2020, which is to cut massive amounts of money from every program,” Rankin said. “Hopefully we don't have to do that again, but we need to be ready in case we do.”
With all this spending, Rankin says he’s particularly concerned about whether all of the work the state budget is setting out will be completed.
“We're laying a lot of new work on our departments,” he said. “Do we actually have the workforce to do the work? Can we hire the people?”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, dozens of amendments to the budget were proposed. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle fought to have their legislative priorities fully funded, from paying into the state unemployment trust fund to providing more funding for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.
Not all of the amendments passed, but many did. The budget recommendations with the amendments passed by both the House and the Senate will now head back to the Joint Budget Committee to reconcile the differences and come up with a final budget proposal for lawmakers to sign off on before the end of the legislative session.