Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in Colorado — despite increasing vaccination — and thousands remain unemployed, the immediate future looks bright for the state’s budget.
The Colorado General Assembly finalized the $34.1 billion 2021-2022 budget on April 30, with last-minute additions for gray wolf reintroduction, short-term cash assistance and bullying prevention efforts. If the budget package is signed by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis it would constitute an 11% increase in spending over the current year.
That’s a far cry from the belt-tightening forced by the pandemic last spring, when lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee were expecting a prolonged economic downturn. But this year, between higher-than-expected sales and income tax revenue, and a forthcoming influx of federal coronavirus relief money, legislators almost had more money than they knew what to do with, to quote JBC chair Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat.
Earlier in April, lawmakers in the Colorado House and Senate passed 12 amendments worth more than $30 million beyond what the JBC’s original proposed budget, also known as the long bill, included. Besides the 12 amendments that passed in both chambers, there were two that passed in the Senate only and six that passed in the House only. All together, those budget changes added up to $57.9 million on top of the $34.1 billion the JBC planned for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
On April 29, the six JBC members held a conference to decide which spending additions to keep, which to downsize and which to scrap. The following day, the committee’s final decisions were approved by the House and Senate.
Despite rejecting some amendments that had passed in both chambers — such as $5 million for additional domestic violence funding — JBC members assured their colleagues that state stimulus bills and yet-to-be allocated federal funds could help accomplish many of the same goals.
Lawmakers including House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, protested the JBC’s decision to reduce and add conditions to a funding increase to the body-worn camera grant program — which helps local law enforcement agencies pay to implement the state-mandated technology. Both the House and Senate voted to add $3 million for the grant program during the budget amendment process, but the JBC shrunk that amount to $1 million.
Polis must review the budget and can choose to veto individual line items. Below are the last-minute changes he’ll be considering along with the rest of the budget.
Decreased funding for body cameras, substance use grants
The JBC kept a Senate amendment from Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican, adding cash for the School Bullying Prevention and Education Grant Program. Committee members decreased the amount of the addition from $2 million to $1 million.
Schools that participate in the program can receive up to $40,000 in grant funding to spend on evidence-based bullying prevention efforts. Normally, the program is funded with marijuana tax revenue.
The JBC kept half of the $500,000 addition for the state’s suicide prevention program, included in another Smallwood amendment that passed in the Senate only.
A House-passed amendment designated $5 million in general fund money to pay for the voter-approved reintroduction of gray wolves west of the Continental Divide. The JBC decided to keep $1.1 million for that purpose.
The JBC kept $250,000 from a $1 million amendment, passed by both the House and Senate, to increase funding for a grant program addressing prevention and early intervention for alcohol and drug addiction. The amendment was first introduced by Sens. Chris Kolker, D-Centennial, and Kevin Priola, R-Brighton.
An amendment by Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat, to fund a chief educational equity officer position in the Department of Higher Education was approved by a majority of JBC members, but they reduced the amount from $160,000 to $125,000. Moreno said this position had to be cut last year when lawmakers on the JBC were expecting a revenue shortfall due to the pandemic.
The JBC kept some funding for another of Coleman’s amendments, to go toward the Tony Grampsas Youth Services Program. This program helps fund local organizations’ prevention, intervention and education efforts around youth crime and violence, youth marijuana use, and child abuse and neglect.
Amendments passed in both the Senate and the House included $1.04 million in additional funding for the program. The JBC kept $250,000 of that.
The JBC reduced additional funding for the body-worn camera grant program from $3 million to $1 million, and specified that agencies receiving that earmarked funding must comply with requirements for storing and releasing body camera video as soon as they spend the money. Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and former Weld County sheriff, originally sponsored the amendment. It found bipartisan support in the Senate as well as the House, where McKean and Rep. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat, reintroduced it.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and JBC member who sponsored law enforcement accountability legislation in 2020, disagreed with adding extra money to the program. Before the amendments, the budget committee had already allocated $3 million to the program, she said, and that was enough for the small and rural agencies who needed help implementing body cameras to meet the requirements of that 2020 bill. Many of the state’s larger agencies already have the cameras.
During the JBC’s conference, Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, moved to keep the full $3 million added through the House and Senate amendments. Both JBC member Rep. Kim Ransom, a Lone Tree Republican, and Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat who serves as vice chair, agreed. But the other committee members — Herod, Moreno and Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat — disagreed, forcing a tie that limited the extra funding to $1 million.
“I am deeply dismayed by this,” Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican, said on the House floor the following day. “The practical effect is that police departments, county sheriffs and local police departments for the city will have to cut funding for their other policing operations in order to pay for this mandate. At a time of rising crime.”
She asked colleagues to reject the JBC’s conference committee report on the long bill, but it passed the House and Senate.
Some amendments get full funding
The JBC kept an amendment allocating $10 million from the State Education Fund for K-12 students with severe disabilities, which was originally sponsored by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert. The money represents an ongoing annual commitment for the state Legislature, McCluskie said.
The full $13.5 million reappropriation of federal funds for short-term cash assistance — from an amendment introduced by Democratic Reps. Monica Duran of Wheat Ridge and Tracey Bernett of Boulder County — was approved by a majority of JBC members, though Ransom disagreed with that decision. The change designates money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program.
Over Ransom’s opposition, the JBC also kept a House amendment adding $100,000 for contracts and procurement in the state’s Personnel Department.
The committee kept an amendment adding $650,000 for the civil rights division in the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies. The money would pay for more full-time employees, including investigators, for the Civil Rights Commission, according to Sen. Faith Winter, the Westminster Democrat who introduced the provision.
Over the last 10 years, the Civil Rights Commission has seen a significant increase in civil rights cases without any new employees, Mitch Burmeister, a legislative budget and policy analyst on JBC’s nonpartisan staff, told the committee April 29.
“They impressed upon me that they’re just spending less time on each case as the years go by,” Burmeister said before the committee voted to keep the funding increase.
Additions for ambulance providers, mental health screenings scrapped
The JBC rejected an amendment passed in both the House and Senate that would have increased state Medicaid payments for emergency medical transportation and ambulance services. The budget already includes an across-the-board rate increase of 2.5% for all providers that contract with the state, but this amendment — introduced by Sens. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, and Zenzinger — would have put $1 million in federal dollars and state general fund money toward an additional 2% for those medical transporters.
The committee rejected another Senate- and House-passed change that would have added $5 million for the state’s Domestic Violence Program, which contracts with local organizations that help people leaving abusive situations and survivors in need of support. Sens. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Winter, and Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, originally sponsored this amendment.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, sponsored a successful amendment adding $5 million in general fund money for housing assistance for people who couldn’t verify lawful presence in the U.S. On April 29, the JBC got rid of the funding increase, but added a footnote to the long bill specifying that $5 million of the money already designated for affordable housing should be used for that purpose.
The JBC also rejected an amendment that would have added $2 million for mental health screenings for students. Introduced by Smallwood, this change earned bipartisan support in both chambers.
But other state money could end up filling the same purpose. A separate stimulus bill moving through the Legislature would provide $9 million for a temporary program that would pay for up to three free telehealth appointments for Colorado students 12 and older with identified mental health needs. Like the rejected amendment, House Bill 21-1258 is a response to concerns from educators about children needing more mental health support as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.