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Colorado lawmakers set to debate $40.6 billion state budget

‘Clearly, the headline in this year’s long bill is the investment in education’
The Colorado Capitol in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

Members of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday introduced a $40.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are set to begin debate on the budget – one of the few bills the Legislature must pass each year – on Thursday, with a final vote likely next week before it heads to the Senate.

The budget legislation is also known as the “long bill.”

“Clearly, the headline in this year’s long bill is the investment in education,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday.

That includes funding public K-12 education at the level called for in the state Constitution for the first time since the Great Recession, a plan that Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers have celebrated since November.

The budget would also fully fund special education and increase funding for English language proficiency programs by 10%. A separate companion bill addresses funding needs for schools that are facing an influx of newly arrived migrant students by giving the schools a flat amount based on new students.

Additionally, the budget proposes a $1.6 billion increase, about 10%, to the Department of Higher Education. That will enable the state’s colleges and universities to hold in-state tuition at or below a 3% increase.

“There’s so much conversation about what we can do to make higher ed more affordable. This is it. This is where the state has its biggest lever,” Rep. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the JBC, said.

The investment will help middle-income families, she said, who fall into the gap of not being able to access financial aid but also not being able to entirely self-fund a college education.

The long bill also includes $25 million for need-based grants and $1.5 million for a scholarship program for students who were homeless in high school.

Funding for prison transgender care, job training and wage increases

The budget includes nearly $8 million related to transgender care for incarcerated people. That includes $2.8 million to create two transgender living units with 148 total beds: 48 at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for transgender women scheduled for or recovering from surgery and 100 at the Sterling Correctional Facility for volunteers who haven’t met the criteria to be placed at the Women’s Facility or feel threatened because of their gender identity.

Another $5.3 million would go to gender-affirming surgery for transgender women when they meet the clinical criteria laid out in a 2024 consent decree around transgender care in Colorado’s prisons.

The budget also has $1 million marked to implement in-demand job training for incarcerated people related to installing electric vehicle charging stations, maintaining HVAC systems and obtaining commercial drivers licenses.

“We’ve had this effort to make sure that people are making use of their time wisely while they are in the Department of Corrections, and that when they come out, they have the skills they need to succeed in relevant jobs,” Bird said.

The budget also includes $2.2 million to increase the pay incarcerated people earn while in prison up to an average of $2 per day over the next two fiscal years. Currently, incarcerated people earn between 33 cents to more than $2 an hour. The scheme would require another $2.2 million increase in fiscal year 2025-26.

Boosted funding for universal preschool

There is a $53.8 million increase for the state’s universal preschool program, which had a rocky start during its first year as providers complained about a cumbersome administrative process. The increase will support additional employees for the program, local coordinating organizations and quality improvements for the program.

There’s an infusion of $3.3 million for UPK’s information technology structure, one of the main sources of implementation headaches.

Nearly $2 million would go to attracting and retaining high-quality providers to the early childhood workforce.

Adding psychiatric beds for competency restoration

The budget has a $68 million increase in the Department of Human Services to add or maintain 145 psychiatric beds, an attempt to reduce the waitlist for people in the justice system deemed incompetent to stand trial. The money would support the continuation of private hospital contracts enabled by American Rescue Plan Act dollars, expand the capacity at the mental health hospital in Pueblo and create a new forensic health unit.

Colorado is required to provide treatment and try to restore competency to people facing trial.

The fiscal year starts July 1.

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.