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Photo by Ken Teegardin of Assisted Senior Living courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday’s budget-cutting session with the Joint Budget Committee made one thing very clear: the cuts are getting harder and uglier.

And given that the discussion began with K-12 education, a top legislative priority, including for those on the JBC, the tears that started Wednesday began anew.

The emotions began flowing when the committee discussed what to do with 2019-20 funding for a K-12 quality teacher recruitment program and taking back part of its $2.9 million appropriation. The program, which was authorized by the General Assembly in 2013, provides funding for teacher recruitment efforts, with a teacher mentoring program for up to five years per person.

Taking the dollars right away would leave unresolved what to do with those enrolled in the program right now.

The committee’s choice: cut the program’s funding down to $1 million and eliminate it for the future, which would save nearly $2 million in the 2019-20 budget.

“It would be irresponsible to reduce those funds in 2019-20,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. But Zenzinger choked up as she allowed that the program would have to be ended for 2020-21, which would save about $3 million.

When it came down to talking about the 2020-21 K-12 budget, JBC staff analyst Craig Harper said he also struggled with making some of the recommendations he presented Thursday.

Harper told the committee his goal is to hold the debt to K-12 schools, known as the Budget Stabilization Factor, constant, which is required by law. The BS factor is currently at $572 million. Harper estimated that it would take about $72 million in cuts to keep that debt constant. As a result, much of what would be cut Thursday will be used to pay for the School Finance Act rather than bolster the general fund budget.

Harper made his presentation personal Thursday. He has two children, one in 5th grade and another in 8th grade, and watching them “theoretically” learning remotely at home has made him appreciate how difficult that teaching is.

And while his children don’t fall into that category, Harper said his main goal with budget cuts is to protect the most vulnerable students: English Language Learners and those with reading deficiencies, low-income students and special education students.

Among the programs that got the budget ax on Thursday:

  • School bullying prevention
  • Computer science grants for teachers,
  • Grants that allow low-income students to take Advanced Placement exams
  • Incentives “for school districts and charter schools to encourage students to participate in qualified career development programs”

The committee also axed funding for six programs authorized by 2019 legislation:

  • Reduce behavioral health professionals
  • Eliminate ninth-grade success programs
  • Reduce workforce diploma pilot
  • Eliminate local accountability grants
  • Reduce school leadership pilot
  • Delay Buckner Automatic Enrollment

The last on the list prompted more emotion. The program is named for the late state Rep. John Buckner, who died in 2015 while in office. His wife, Janet, succeeded him in the seat and in 2019 was one of the sponsors of SB 59, which automatically enrolls ninth-grade students in advanced course subjects in which they show proficiency. The other sponsor: Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and the JBC’s vice-chair.

“It’s surprising to me how many times I've cried,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat. One of those times, she said, was when the General Assembly named the bill after John Buckner.

The committee decided not to eliminate the program but just to cancel its funding for 2020-21, saving $250,000 that will go into the School Finance Act. Zenzinger told Janet Bucker, while choking back tears, that although the program “is near and dear to your heart, keeping it as a program without funding continues our commitment to something you and John worked so hard for.”

Members struck a hopeful tone that some cuts can be backfilled by CARES Act funding. Colorado is in line for $121 million to address COVID-19 activities. That includes purchasing educational technology for online learning, mental health services and cleaning supplies. But it also includes funding for other activities necessary to maintain the continuity of operations. That could leave the door open to replenishing some programs that are tied to COVID-19 services.

That might include the more than $3 million cut for public libraries, school libraries and academic libraries to purchase educational resources they can’t otherwise afford. Harper said the grants represent a small portion of funding for those libraries, and given their necessity during the pandemic they could try to make the argument that CARES Act funding would apply.

According to JBC staff director Carolyn Kampman, the state has now received $1.673 billion from the CARES Act, deposited in a separate cash account with the state treasurer. And the other good news is that a May 4 federal memo appears to provide states with a little more flexibility on how they spend CARES Act money.

Toward the end of the day, the most painful discussions focused on the 10% or 20% across-the-board cuts and how those are taken in each agency.

For education, the programs that could face cuts include full-day kindergarten (an additional cost of $220 million in 2020-21), preschool ($124 million) and the Accelerating College through Concurrent Enrollment, or ASCENT, program ($3.89 million). The budget stabilization factor also was included among the options, with each $100 million representing an 8.2% reduction in school funding.

The committee didn’t take action on any of those options but Zenzinger asked what route they could take to change the full-day kindergarten program. That answer is that could be done through the School Finance Act.

The last task of the day was to look at the higher education budget, which has been a traditional go-to for big budget cuts during past recessions. And that practice continued. 

The first to go: the 7% increase in general fund spending for the state colleges and universities, which saved $73 million. They also cut $5 million in merit-based aid for students, a frequent go-to for budget cuts in past recessions.

The JBC cut scholarship funds, teacher development and educator loan forgiveness grants. They cut funding for an opioid awareness campaign but left alone, for now, a $1 million appropriation to Colorado State University for a wildfire mitigation grant fund. The $1 million in funding to paint the state Capitol dome is likely gone, under a bill the JBC will consider that would allow History Colorado to use those funds for other purposes.

The JBC also decided to begin steps to eliminate the Colorado Kickstarter program, which sets up savings accounts of $100 for every baby born in Colorado and which began on Feb. 18. That action includes sweeping whatever is left of its $12.2 million fund balance once its obligations are met.

The committee also stuck to an earlier decision to allow colleges and universities to increase tuition by 3%, although JBC staff analyst Amanda Bickel said the community college system is seeking a higher hike, perhaps as high as 5.6%.

By the end of the day, the JBC had cut more than $105 million from higher ed.

But that may not be the end of it. Bickel told the committee that in past recessions, higher ed has taken bigger cuts because institutions can remedy them in part with tuition increases. The state has never caught up on funding for the institutions, Bickel said, and she indicated that the JBC may have to take larger cuts to the higher ed budget before it’s all over. She said the JBC could cut the general fund portion of the higher ed budget by 50%, and it would hurt, but the colleges and universities are more worried about enrollment declines, because tuition makes up a bigger portion of their budgets.

Higher ed dodged some of the pain in the most recent recession in 2009 with stimulus funds. While institutions are in line for $144.5 million in CARES Act funding, and it may offset losses in the 2019-20 year, enrollment will decide just how well colleges and universities fare in 2020-21, Bickel said. Some are anticipating enrollment declines of up to 30%, she said.

Finally, the JBC took time Thursday to figure out their options on furloughs for state employees. State law prohibits correctional officers from being furloughed, but they learned during the review of the corrections budget on Tuesday that some correctional employees are working reduced schedules. That’s due in part to efforts to release as many non-violent offenders as possible, under an executive order issued by the governor, to avoid the potential for more outbreaks of COVID-19. The Sterling Correctional Facility, as of Wednesday, had 262 inmates infected with the virus as well as 16 staff.

Were the JBC to impose furloughs, they could do so through separate legislation, and that could include correctional officers, although Nicole Myers of the Office of Legislative Legal Services warned that could incur a veto from the governor if the JBC and governor are not on the same page.

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