DENVER – Money has returned but bipartisan cooperation has departed from the state Legislature.
After a contentious two months spent on guns, immigration, gas and oil drilling and gay rights, senators started work on their main duty Wednesday: passing the state’s $20.5 billion budget.
It’s the first time in about five years that legislators have had extra money to spend, thanks to an improving economy and a flood of tax revenues, partly from investors cashing in on the stock market.
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, is chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. He touted the budget’s investment of $30 million in mental-health care and increased spending for the state’s troubled child-welfare system.
“We can do better by Colorado’s children by passing Senate Bill 230 (the budget bill),” Steadman said.
However, unlike last year when the budget passed by a wide bipartisan majority, this year’s spending plan looks likely to pass with few or no Republican votes.
Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said he would vote against the budget he helped write as a member of the Joint Budget Committee. He cited several other bills, including gun bills, that the Legislature has passed this year.
“I think we’ve gone too far in some of our actions this year, and this budget enables those actions to proceed,” Lambert said.
Wednesday was the only day that most rank-and-file senators will get a chance to amend the budget, and lawmakers took the chance to push their personal priorities, from natural-gas and oil regulation to aerial firefighting tankers.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, tried to cut spending by about $9 million – the amount, she reckons, that Colorado is picking up after cuts in federal funding. Further cuts by Congress will leave Colorado on the hook for more spending, something Roberts wants to avoid.
“I would seriously ask us to think about this as a strong self-discipline exercise,” Roberts said.
Steadman said he agrees that federal aid to Colorado will fall as Congress tries to cut spending. But the Legislature needs to be able to take action and not simply cut spending every time Congress does, he said.
Democrats defeated Roberts’ amendment.
Republicans proposed amendments to greatly increase state spending and to cut it.
They began the afternoon by trying to add nearly $100 million to public schools by taking it out of the school savings account. Democrats defeated it but said they were likely to boost school funding later this year in the school finance bill.
Republicans ended the afternoon by proposing an across-the-board 5 percent cut to all state departments. That amendment, too, failed.
The state is predicted to have about $1.8 billion more for the 2013-14 budget compared to this year. Gov. John Hickenlooper has prodded legislators to be careful with the windfall, because if they spend too much, they might have to make cuts next year.
Still, the budget as proposed would increase the general fund – the portion of the budget that legislators control – to $8.2 billion, a $600 million increase. That’s the largest yearly increase since the recession began.
The budget starts to restore cuts from the past several years, including a $1 billion cut to education, Steadman said.
“We have turned the corner. We are beginning to restore some of that funding,” Steadman said.
Republicans also unsuccessfully tried to cut various parts of the budget to pay for aerial firefighting tankers.
Democratic Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville, meanwhile, tried but failed to use the budget to add inspectors to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. He’s sponsoring a bill that would add 65 employees to the commission.