state budget

Instead of the usual crowd of lobbyists, state agency employees and the occasional member of the press, the Colorado legislature's Joint Budget Committee Monday hosted members of the public to hear where they think the state should prioritize in the 2019-20 budget.

It's the first time the powerful committee has ever allowed public input on the state's general operating budget before budget-writers have put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Taxpayers have always had the right to tell lawmakers what they think of how their money is being spent, but that right until now has been reserved to emails or phone calls, and public testimony have been available only after the budget is already written and in appropriation committee hearings in March and April. 

Monday's hearing is at least six weeks before the next and all-important revenue forecast comes out on March 20 (it's the one the JBC uses to confirm what the state can spend) and before the annual Long Appropriations Bill is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate on March 25.

Back in November, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $31.4 billion budget for 2019-20, a $600 million increase over the 2018-19 budget.

Included in that request: $77 million to reduce the "budget stabilization factor," a debt owed to public schools since 2010, when the state cut $1 billion from K-12 funding. The $77 million would reduce the state's debt down to $595 million. Gov. Jared Polis told the JBC last month he also supports that request.

Another $121 million -- the dollars are one-time-only and come from an expected revenue surplus of $1.2 billion -- would spare students attending Colorado public colleges and universities from a tuition hike in the 2019-20 school year. 

Neither Hickenlooper nor Polis had any recommendations for additional transportation funding in their proposals for the 2019-20 budget. 

Monday's hearing drew more than a hundred to the JBC's hearing room in the Legislative Services Building, with about 50 signed up to testify.

But if you were expecting a wide array of issues from Coloradans from all over the state, well...

The hearing was dominated by witnesses from the education community, who testified in support of full-day kindergarten (a top Polis priority) and for cutting the state's debt to K-12 education.

That included, parents, teachers and school superintendents, such as Don Haddad of the St. Vrain Valley School District in the Longmont area, who said covering the costs of full day kindergarten "is the quintessential example of an investment that will save millions of dollars."

Charlotte Ciancio of the Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County said her district pays $2 million to provide full-day kindergarten, money that could be used for services for much-needed intervention services.

These demands are greater than the budget allows, said Maggie Miller, a volunteer for advocacy group Great Education Colorado. But the state needs to cut the debt to K-12, she said, adding that her group would partner with lawmakers who are also willing to work on meaningful tax reform.

But it wasn't all that people asked for. Several witnesses advocated for more funding for the state's film incentive program, a favorite of Hickenlooper's, or for improved reimbursements for home health aides.

Renee Franklin of Aurora asked the committee to increase provider rates for home health care aides. By 2020, Franklin said, there will be 800,000 senior Coloradans in need of assistance from health care aides, but only about 49,000 available.

"This is the lowest reimbursement industry in the state. We need to pay our caregivers," Franklin said. 

"Yesterday I was pulling a calf," said Darius Allen of Alamosa County, who advocated for funding for underfunded courthouses. "Today, I'm here!"

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