Budget must balance before heading to governor; joint committee works on compromises

    Last Thursday, April 5, the Senate wrapped up its work on the 2018-19 state budget, adding about $73 million in general fund spending to the $28.9 billion budget.
    Problem is, the General Assembly doesn’t have $73 million available to cover those extra items, so something’s going to have to go.
    When the Joint Budget Committee finished its draft of House Bill 1322, the Long Appropriations Bill, they had just over $40 million in surplus revenue available for changes in the budget. That surplus could also cover any bills still moving through the legislative process but not signed into law before the budget bill and 18 accompanying measures were introduced.
    The House also added about $63 million in its amendments during its work on the budget.
    The Joint Budget Committee, which will act as a conference committee, will work this week to find common ground between the House and Senate versions.
    The Senate’s additions included $35 million for school safety. Those dollars would go to a school safety fund in the Department of Public Safety to hire school resource officers — police officers who work in schools — as well as pay for safety improvements to school facilities.
    Another addition: $8 million to the state’s broadband deployment fund to help finance rural broadband — dollars also coming from the general fund, which is made up of income and sales tax revenues. President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling found another $225,000 to put into the broadband fund by defunding the governor’s broadband office.
    The 2018-19 budget also pays down the so-called negative factor — the debt owed to K-12 education that came out of budget cuts starting in 2010 — by $150 million. Coupled with a $60 million addition to K-12 funding last month, through a supplemental budget process attached to the 2017-18 budget, the negative factor dropped from $828 million to $618 million.
    Another $30 million may be headed for rural schools when the School Finance Act comes out this week. That’s intended to be a continuation of the $30 million put into rural schools through last year’s Sustainability of Rural Colorado bill, Senate Bill 17-267, which was sponsored by Sonnenberg and Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.
    The budget bill passed on a 26-8 vote, with four Republicans and four Democrats voting against.
    Sonnenberg was less successful in attempting to shore up the state’s severance tax funds during Senate debate on the budget last week.
    The state has borrowed close to $400 million from severance tax revenues since 2001-02 and paid back very little of it. The lack of severance tax monies two years ago forced the General Assembly to tap into general fund dollars to pay for property tax deductions to oil giant BP, which won a lawsuit against the state in 2016. That reduced the tab to severance taxes by more than $100 million.
    Sonnenberg sought an amendment to pay back the rest, estimated at around $276 million, when House Bill 1338 came up for debate last week. His intention was to use some of the state’s $1.3 billion revenue surplus, but it was never meant to be. All of that money wound up getting budgeted for other priorities, with the biggest ticket items the $150 million to K-12 education and $495 million to transportation.
    The General Assembly is spending like “drunken sailors,” Sonnenberg lamented.
    The transportation bill included in the budget package — House Bill 1340 — also went through changes in the Senate. House Democrats had added an amendment during its work on the budget to require 15 percent of those dollars to go to multimodal projects, over strong objections from House Republicans.
    The message got through to the Senate, which stripped out that change and it never got back onto the bill.
    As it now stands, House Bill 1340 would put $495 million into the state highway trust fund through quarterly transfers, in order to keep a steady flow of dollars going to road projects during the busiest construction season.

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