State budget progress

This year’s budget exercise at the Colorado Legislature is a decidedly less painful one than the previous several cycles have brought. With better-than-expected revenue projections for 2012-2013, lawmakers are not faced with the unenviable question of how to make cuts that will result in the least amount of suffering for the state’s priority funding areas. As such, the budgeting process is going more smoothly, but is nonetheless politically infused.

The Colorado House of Representatives gave its initial blessing to the $19 billion budget Wednesday, using an unexpected $300 million in revenues to backfill cuts to K-12 education and to reinstate a property-tax break for seniors. The former is a good move, the latter less so given that so many other state services are suffering because of inadequate funding. Higher education is among these and would have been a more appropriate place to target the extra funding than a tax break.

The wrangling and resultant decisions are representative of the political and partisan nature of the state’s government – as well as the nation’s. In order to get spending increases in some areas, Democrats must swallow tax breaks they would likely prefer not to entertain. Conversely, Republicans who would rather not increase spending must agree to some funding boosts in order to achieve their tax-relief goals. All of this is, of course, being debated with a looming general election as a backdrop.

These broad-brush budget discussions have finer points as well that reflect changing priorities and shifting values. A Republican-proposed amendment to reallocate $4.2 million from the Department of Corrections’ budget to instead help fund full-day kindergarten was justified by dropping prison population numbers and the greater societal value that early childhood education can have over the long term. His colleagues on both sides of the aisle approved the amendment of Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, on the budget bill’s first reading. Whether it survives through the whole approval process will be reflective of how commonly held a value that is for lawmakers – and, by extension, their constituents.

Other amendment attempts were less about reflecting shared values than about making political statements – however appropriate. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, offered an amendment that would restrict government support for vasectomies or treating erectile dysfunction when women’s reproductive health treatments are under similar scrutiny. Pabon ultimately withdrew his amendment, but not the point he was trying to make. As a political process, the budget discussion is an effective one in which to raise such issues, and given the national debate over women’s health, it is informative to learn lawmakers’ positions on such fundamental issues.

The budget still has several steps before it is finalized – including a second approval in the House and passage by the Senate. In that journey, the budget is sure to change but by a matter of degrees at this point. There surely will be more politically charged amendments as well as those that mark shared values. The final product will not be perfect, but it will not be nearly as difficult a spending prescription to follow as those in the past two years.

The bipartisan composition of the State Legislature dictates a lively debate will accompany any budget process. That this one is slightly less contentious because of improved economic conditions benefits all in the state – some more than others.

The budget is traveling at an appropriate pace through the legislative chambers, and all signs indicate that progress will continue to an outcome that all sides can accept.

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