Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed the main bill that puts into place the spending plan for Colorado's state government for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
The budget, at $38.5 billion, is the largest in history and about $1.2 billion more than the current year's spending plan.
Most of the increase, about $822 million, is for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and intended to cover the expiration of enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds tied to COVID-19 emergency declarations.
Surrounded by all six Joint Budget Committee members, the first time since 2018, the governor called the budget prudent and fiscally responsible. He noted its record investment in K-12 education and its first-time funding for universal pre-kindergarten education for 25,000 families.
The budget also includes investments in water that the governor said will draw down tens of millions in federal dollars that will support water projects, as well as the state water plan.
"This is not a flashy budget," said JBC Chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. "This is a practical, thoughtful budget, where we are standing up, shoring up, catching up, and making good on the guarantees that we have made to our workers, our providers, our retirees, and to our families."
In calling the budget a "moral document," Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, said it reflects Colorado values of opportunity, independence and responsibility.
Opportunity comes from the investments in K-12 and higher education, as well as in pre-kindergarten, while independence is tied to countering "bad decisions made by downstream lower basin states," Bridges said, adding that the budget spends on both water infrastructure projects and in lawyers, negotiators, and researchers who will protect the state's Colorado River water.
Responsibility comes from investments in public safety, fire, police and the National Guard, he said, adding, "The budget is moral, it is balanced, and it is finished."
Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, thanked Zenzinger for her patience, which Kirkmeyer said the chair needed with some folks more than others.
"It's a get it done kind of budget," said Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, calling it a budget that is about good government accountability and transparency.
Kirkmeyer also commend efforts to raise Medicaid provider rates by 3%, funding the Office of School Safety and money for veterans services.
She called the budget "fiscally conservative," one that leaves the state in very good shape, particularly with reserves totaling $4.6 billion.
Her only disappointment is not paying off the debt to K-12, but she said that should happen next year.
Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, reserved his remarks in defense of TABOR.
Now in its 30th year, it has served the state well, Bockenfeld said, as reflected in the strong general fund reserve balance.
TABOR's constraints have continued to manage the state's general fund spending, he added.
"This is a good, solid budget that meets the objectives of the Colorado citizens," he said.
Bockenfeld was among the signatories to a letter on Saturday seeking to have the budget bill returned to the General Assembly to correct an error in the funding for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. House Republicans threatened to have every bill read at length in the House until that was done, but with the budget bill now signed, they've pivoted to seeking negotiations with House Democrats on the bills remaining on the calendar in the session's final seven days.
The ceremony was not without wistfulness. It is the last budget for JBC staff director Carolyn Kampman, who has been on the JBC staff since 1994 and has had her hand in every budget since. Kampman, who was appointed JBC director in 2019 and led the JBC staff during the COVID years, has announced she will retire before Nov. 1, when the next cycle of budget work begins.
"Every process she has touched has gotten better, and we are very grateful to her, and we want to acknowledge her leadership because it is evident throughout the pages of this budget," Zenzinger said.
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