As part of their proposed budget for next year, Colorado lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee asked their colleagues to pump a historic amount of cash into the state’s reserve fund, giving it a buffer for the next emergency.
“The budget committee and the General Assembly have been through one of the craziest swings in budgeting that I have ever seen — that I think many of us have ever seen,” Sen. Dominick Moreno, the Commerce City Democrat who chairs the JBC, said on the Senate floor April 8. “A year ago we were in the position of having to cut $3 billion from the state budget.”
The budget package proposed by the JBC last week amounted to $34.1 billion, an 11% spending increase from the current fiscal year. It would set aside $1.74 billion for the general fund reserve in fiscal year 2021-2022.
“I do want to exercise caution, however,” Moreno continued, “because I can’t emphasize enough the degree to which those resources are one-time.”
Despite those warnings, Senate lawmakers from both parties passed several amendments to next year’s budget totaling more than $30 million, which if approved by the House would divert most of that money from the general fund reserve.
The Senate voted to approve those amendments and Senate Bill 21-205, the “long bill” funding the government, along with SB-205’s associated “orbital bills” on April 9. Expect to see more suggestions like those passed — and rejected – by the Senate during House debate this week, when representatives will vote on the budget package and Senate amendments.
Below are some of the major themes from the Senate debate.
More support for students
Democrats as well as some Republicans found success in urging support for more money being designated for specific education-related purposes.
Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, succeeded in sending an additional $10 million from the State Education Fund to a program that supports children with disabilities, including those who are deaf, blind, autistic or have major brain trauma. Currently, Holbert said, the state only pays 43% of the $6,000 it should be paying districts for each of those students.
“With this additional $10 million, we could get up to 50.9%,” he said.
Meanwhile, Senate lawmakers supported three changes worth $7.5 million that were requested by Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican. Smallwood’s amendments provided $2 million in additional funding for the School Bullying Prevention and Education Cash Fund, $2 million for school-based health centers and $500,000 for a suicide prevention program within the Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Proper mental health screening of our students, combined with the sustained resources provided under both suicide prevention programs which include crisis hotlines is critical in helping solve problems like school violence and teen suicide,” Smallwood was quoted as saying in a subsequent statement from Colorado Senate Republicans. “I am thankful to have earned bipartisan support for three of my budget amendments.”
Sen. James Coleman, a Democrat from Denver, introduced two amendments related to education, both of which passed in the Senate.
One amendment added $160,000 for a chief educational equity officer position in the Department of Higher Education. Before the pandemic hit, this position was going to be funded — but it had to be cut last year when lawmakers on the JBC were expecting a revenue shortfall, according to Moreno.
Another of Coleman’s amendments added $1.04 million for the Tony Grampsas Youth Services Program. The existing state program helps fund local organizations’ prevention, intervention and education efforts around youth crime and violence, youth marijuana use, and child abuse and neglect.
Money for domestic violence survivors, law enforcement
Two Democrats, Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Faith Winter of Westminster, and Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs joined forces on an amendment to add $5 million of general fund money for domestic violence survivors. The money would benefit the Domestic Violence Program within the Colorado Department of Human Services, which contracts with local organizations that help people leave abusive situations and get help.
During the pandemic, survivors “have been isolated from their network of support,” Fields said.
Denver police recorded 775 stabbings, nonfatal shootings and physical assaults related to domestic violence that resulted in serious injury in the first nine months of 2020, the Denver Post reported in December. That represented a 46% increase over the three-year average from 2017 through 2019.
TESSA, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that helps domestic violence survivors and their families, saw the number of calls to its hotline jump from 800 a month in 2019 to around 13,000 monthly calls in 2020, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, succeeded in getting support for an amendment to add another $5 million of general fund money for affordable housing assistance, to the Department of Local Affairs. The money would be designated for people who can’t verify lawful presence in the U.S.
Another amendment from Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke of Greeley would send money to local jurisdictions by adding $3 million for the Body-Worn Cameras Grant Program.
“We all support body-worn cameras for our law enforcement officers,” Cooke said in Senate Republicans’ statement. “But it is not fair — especially to our rural agencies — to force them to adopt expensive technologies without stepping up to help pay for it.”
Multimillion-dollar funding increases rejected for local jails, early literacy
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, called for an additional $60 million from the state’s general fund to go toward catch-up tutoring and summer school for kindergarten through 3rd grade students. The funds would be paid into the state’s Early Literacy Grant program.
Anecdotal information from parents and teachers suggests students have faced academic challenges due to the pandemic, Lundeen said in an interview. “Some of the lower grades have been the most challenged. Kindergarten, 1 — it’s so very, very difficult for those students to get a meaningful online experience. Kindergarten online? Good grief.”
The program is already set to get $100 million next year between state and federal funding, said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee. Hansen asked lawmakers not to put more money into the program.
Despite getting support from two Democratic senators, Lundeen’s amendment was ultimately rejected. He told Newsline he would consider running an amendment to the School Finance Act to accomplish the same purpose.
Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton asked her colleagues to increase the per-diem rate the Department of Corrections pays county jails to house state prisoners, saying that the current rate falls far short of the costs to local governments. The amendment — which would have allocated $4.52 million to DOC to increase the daily rate per prisoner from $59.42 to $80 — ultimately failed. Moreno, in asking lawmakers to reject the amendment, pointed out that the cost of housing a prisoner varies from county to county.
“I do think we have to solve for that variability issue” before allocating additional money, he said.
Transportation amendments fail
A series of Republican amendments to SB-205 would have provided specific funding for projects such as the Interstate 70 west metro bridges, Interstate 25 and Colo. 94 improvements, and U.S. 50 repairs from Grand Junction to Delta.
They provided a preview of debate that’s sure to come when Democratic lawmakers introduce a package of transportation-related bills.
Kirkmeyer’s amendment would have allocated $150 million to the Colorado Department of Transportation for 16 projects the department identified in its 10-year strategic plan. The plan includes billions of dollars worth of unfunded projects. In Kirkmeyer’s amendment, the largest chunk of money — $40 million — would have gone to I-70 west metro bridges.
Sen. Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican, brought an amendment that would have appropriated $176 million to a different group of transportation projects in CDOT’s 10-year plan, including $60 million for the New Pueblo Freeway project.
Winter, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Local Government Committee, said those amendments and others would have gone against how infrastructure projects are traditionally funded in Colorado. Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee also noted that the long bill already includes $124 million set aside for an upcoming bill that would give general fund money to CDOT for infrastructure projects.
CDOT spokesperson Matthew Inzeo said the department opposed the amendments. He noted that it has identified funding for some of the projects for which Republicans requested money, referring to the 10-year strategic plan. For example, over the next four years, CDOT plans to spend $34.5 million on the I-70 west metro bridges using proceeds from 2017 legislation, which authorized lease-purchase agreements on state facilities to help raise money for transportation projects.
“Our budget and project plans are approved by the state Transportation Commission, and these amendments would have disrupted that established process,” Inzeo said in an email.
In total, around a dozen Republican budget amendments that would have appropriated various amounts of money to CDOT for specific projects were voted down by Democrats.
“Our roads and bridges have been neglected for too long,” Kirkmeyer was quoted as saying in a statement from Colorado Senate Republicans after the votes. “The Senate Democrats aren’t interested in maintaining and building our roads with the healthiest state budget we have had in over 20 years as much as they are interested in raising taxes for bike paths and buses.”