With priorities addressed, House OKs ‘the Long Bill’

This year, the budget debate started in the House of Representatives. All of last week was pretty much the discussion of the HR 1335, known lovingly as “the Long Bill.” The results were an unprecedented 64-1 vote approving the bill, which included a General Fund budget of $7.5 billion.

The Joint Budget Committee has been working feverishly on the bill for five months. They are the folks who have done the heavy lifting on formulating and negotiating the budget. Credit needs to go to the JBC staff, who work year-round to put together the facts needed by the JBC. The General Fund is where legislators can make changes at this time. The balance of the budget is set by policy and consists of things such as transportation, Medicare and Medicaid. The General Fund budget is 6.5 percent above last year’s budget made up primarily of the restoration of the state’s contribution of 2.5 percent to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association fund for state employees.

One of the major accomplishments of the budget was the restoration of the Homestead Property Tax Exemption, which will reduce the property-tax burden by 50 percent for senior citizens older than 65 years old who have owned their homes for more than 10 years. This was a goal of the Republicans since last year and probably would not have happened if it had not been a No. 1 priority.

We were able to increase funding for K-12 and higher education. This will help to maintain and possibly reduce tuition and fees at our colleges and universities and will keep the state K-12 contribution level at $6,474 per student. In addition, $57 million was added to the State Education Fund for a total of $100 million for future needs.

Severance tax or energy-impact dollars have been raided to balance the budget in the last few years. State Sen. Ellen Roberts has worked tirelessly to argue that this money should rightfully go back to the local areas affected by energy development. All of these dollars have been pulled out of the General Fund and will be available again for local projects.

The JBC also added $13 million to the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund. This fund had $269 million 10 years ago, but it was completely spent by the Legislature for general operating expenses. This is just plain wrong. We now have a crisis where we have $69 million in needs for maintenance and no money. The JBC did fund the first tier of controlled maintenance, which is the most critical of emergency needs.

I moved to amend the budget to go ahead and use the $13 million that was put into the trust fund for needed maintenance. My amendment was approved by the House. It is my belief that we are “penny wise and pound foolish” not to take care of these needs now rather than waiting until they cost more later. I also strongly believe that we must work to restore the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund, which is also used for the TABOR Reserve Fund.

The budget now goes to the Senate for deliberation.

J. Paul Brown represents House District 59 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses San Juan, Archuleta and La Plata counties and parts of Montezuma County. Contact Brown by phone at (303) 866-2914 or by email at jpaul.brown.house@state.co.us.