By Teachers, For Teachers
DENVER (AP) — Colorado's public schools and colleges are getting hundreds of millions in next year's proposed budget to make up for cuts in previous years, and with the economy on the upswing, there's money left over to save for a rainy day.
But more money to spend means more wrangling when lawmakers begin debating the proposed $23 billion state budget Thursday.
Some lawmakers want to add even more money to schools than what is currently budgeted, and there are pending bills worth nearly $300 million that haven't yet been budgeted for that sponsors will want to fight for.
Still, the budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year continues to reflect better times for the state. Additional tax revenue will allow lawmakers to increase per-student funding by more than $200 next year, bringing the total to $6,875 per pupil to keep pace with inflation and enrollment.
The budget also starts paying for an ambitious two-year technology project to reduce wait times for drivers' licenses to 15 minutes. The project at the Department of Motor Vehicles is expected to cost more than $90 million over two years.
Another big priority in the next budget is damage from last year's wildfires and floods. The proposed budget includes tax credits for wildfire mitigation by homeowners, and a property-tax forgiveness bill for people whose homes were completely destroyed by the disasters.
There's also about $100 million for colleges and universities to help with financial aid and to limit tuition growth.
In all, the state budget totals about $23 billion, a figure that includes federal and state funds. The general fund, which is made up of tax revenue and is what lawmakers have the most control over, will be $8.7 billion. Last year, the general fund was about $8.1 billion and the total budget was about $21 billion.
Both parties want to use some of the additional money to continue refilling a savings fund sapped during the recent recession.
The state's so-called "rainy day fund" dipped to about 2 percent during the recession, providing only enough savings to last for a week. With this budget, lawmakers are hiking the reserves from 5 percent to 6.5 percent so the fund stands at $576.4 million.
"I just love that. So that was a really good thing," said Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, one of six lawmakers on the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee.
Bolstering the rainy day fund is one of the priorities outlined by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper this year.
So times are good in Colorado, but there's plenty of disagreement about how to spend the windfall. Some lawmakers say schools need even more to make up for an estimated $1 billion in budget cuts they endured during the recession. And several education groups gripe that too much of the education money comes with onerous strings attached.
Others have new ideas for state spending or tax cuts and are waiting to see if their bills survive. The bills that make up nearly $300 million in possible spending includes child care assistance for the needy and an $86.2 million proposal to give all employees at community college with teaching responsibilities — including those who are part-time — faculty designations.
Some Republicans want Colorado to acquire its own air tanker fleet to help fight wildfires, an expensive proposition for which there's not yet a formal cost estimate.
"Without a doubt, there are a lot of bills out there that we will not be able to fund," said Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran, JBC chairwoman.
One big omission in the state budget is Colorado's newest source of tax money — recreational pot taxes. Lawmakers say it's too soon to count on any amount of pot money for the overall budget, with estimates ranging from about $55 million to about $118 million for the next fiscal year. (A portion of the pot taxes, $40 million, has already been earmarked by voters for school construction.)
The House will debate the budget Thursday and give it initial approval. On Friday, they'll take a final vote and send it to the Senate for consideration next week.
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
Ivan Moreno can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/ivanjourno