A ballot measure that would ask voters to approve transportation bonding may have to wait until 2021.
The Joint Budget Committee (JBC) voted Friday to draft a bill to postpone the ballot measure, which was due to be referred to the ballot by the General Assembly this year. They also cut funding for the tourism office and to support the outdoor recreation industry.
The JBC also voted to cancel, for two years, a $50 million general fund transfer to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) that is used to make payments on certificates of participation (COPs), a form of bonding.
CDOT had previously said it could cover the $50 million payments from existing resources, according to JBC staff, and the cancellation is supported by the governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting (OSPB).
The proposed ballot issue — one that was originally planned last year — would authorize the state to borrow $1.84 billion, money already in the state budget because of a reclassification of the state's hospital provider fee on beds, Senate Bill 267, which passed in 2017.
Advocates for the ballot measure are doubtful the vote would go forward this year because of the political and economic difficulties brought on by the pandemic. The state highway fund would get 85% of the windfall, with 15% for transit. The 20-year payback is almost $2.6 billion, payments that would come due ahead of schools, safety net programs and other state needs, a proposition Democrats have been reluctant to take up for years.
With Democrats holding majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the governor's office, spending on roads and bridges beyond historic minimums seems unlikely.
In March, the state highway department released a long-range plan that called for an extra $500 million a year for the next decade, an unlikely immediate expenditure given the deep cuts expected this year and next.
CDOT is still issuing the COP bonds for other projects, but some of those issuances are on hold due to market conditions, according to Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat on the committee.
Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads told Colorado Politics Friday that the JBC’s decision to postpone the 2020 TRANS Bond ballot question is understandable. "However, as a means to quickly create jobs and build the backbone of our economy, bonding is critical. There should be no more delay beyond 2021 so we can take advantage of remarkably low interest rates that makes the money almost free," she said.
The committee also cut $500,000 from the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, leaving the office with $250,000; and eliminated the funding ($500,000) for the destination development program within the Colorado tourism office.
They also cut $1 million from a customized job training program, reduced funding to the global business development program and the outdoor recreation industry and eliminated funding for small business development centers, all within the governor's office.
One area of disagreement between the governor's office and the JBC came up when the governor's budget staff asked the JBC to approve hiring seven people for a program on digital services within the office of information technology. Continuing "to add highly paid professional staff, even when their work and efforts are likely to reduce costs elsewhere in the budget, is not one JBC staff can recommend under current economic conditions," wrote JBC staff. The governor's office suggested the costs for those seven people, who have already all been hired, could be spread out among state agencies instead of relying on general fund dollars. The JBC had already cut funding for the program but reversed that decision Friday.
The JBC has been working on budget cuts for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 state budgets for the past two weeks. In the first week, total cuts and transfers for 2020-21 totaled around $700 million.
On Tuesday, an updated revenue forecast for both years. For 2019-20, the budget-cutting actions taken by the committee, combined with an $856 million general fund reserve, will result in a balanced budget for 2019-20. That also left about $250 million left over to begin 2020-21.
The forecast said the 2020-21 general fund portion of the budget — the state's discretionary spending — would be short $3.3 billion out of about $13 billion, or 25%. The JBC's prior actions had reduced what they have to cut to $2.5 billion. That work is expected to be concluded in the next week, in preparation for introduction of the Long Appropriations Bill and dozens of additional bills that would change state law and help balance the budget. The General Assembly is scheduled to return on Tuesday, May 26, with their primary agenda passing the budget and its related bills, the school finance act and bills related to reauthorizing state programs, known as sunsets.
Joey Bunch contributed to this article.