No matter where you looked Wednesday in Colorado’s Capitol complex, there were people worrying or arguing about the state’s budget woes.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter announced his latest round of proposed budget cuts on Jan. 27.

Two House committees wrangled over proposals to abolish tax exemptions. Gov. Bill Ritter proposed new nips and tucks in current spending. A new higher education study panel opened its first meeting with a gloomy briefing. And interest groups politely sparred over who should bear the cost of educating jailed teenagers.

It all started at 7:30 a.m. in one House committee and was still going more than 13 hours later in another House panel.

Here are some snapshots of the day.

Don’t raise my taxes

Part of Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget-balancing plans for both 2009-10 and 2010-11 include rescinding about a dozen tax exemptions. Most affect business, but one bill would reimpose a tax on soda and candy.

If all the measures (House Bills 10-1189 through 1200) pass, they’re estimated to produce more than $130 million in revenue next budget year. If some or all fail, deeper state budget cuts will have to be made, with K-12 spending the likely target.

Lobbyists for the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and Colorado Association of School Executives braved a committee room packed with opponents to testify in favor of the measures. In addition to business executives and lobbyists, opponents included a squad of red-jacketed Coca-Cola employees.

For procedural reasons, the bills started early Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, where minority Republicans used parliamentary techniques and general long-windedness to drag the proceedings out, disrupting other House business in the process.

The House Finance Committee picked up the task at 1:30 a.m. and met late into the evening, taking public testimony on the bills.

Among bills delayed on the House floor was Senate Bill 10-065, which cuts $110 million (about 2 percent) from current-year state school aid. It also specifies that the state won’t cover the $20 million cost of higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students. (The bill has to be passed and signed by Friday or school districts will have access to the $110 million.)

Another budget “adjustment”

As House Finance started its ordeal across the street, Ritter gathered reporters in his wood-paneled Capitol office to announce still more proposed adjustments to the 2009-10 budget to fill an additional hole of nearly $50 million.

The latest plan proposed no further K-12 cuts. But it does suggest taking $5.5 million in federal stimulus funds from 2010-11 and adding it to the stimulus money already being used for higher education in this budget year. (Doing so frees up money from the state general fund, which is what needs to be balanced.)

That means colleges and universities this year will receive more in stimulus dollars than in state tax support, and state and federal support will decline by $61 million in 2010-11.

What keeps higher ed afloat is tuition, which is projected to provide two-thirds of college and university budgets next school year. Ritter has proposed a 9 percent increase for next year.

Since the recession started pummeling state revenues, the state has made about $2 billion in cuts and revenue shifts and faces the need to make at least $1 billion more.

(Go here for the details of the governor’s latest balancing plan.)

Somber marching orders for commission

Earlier, at mid-morning, a group gathered for its first meeting in an office building at the foot of Capitol Hill. The 12-member Colorado Higher Education Strategic Plan Steering Committee was appointed by Ritter to develop a new master plan for the state system and make a report by the end of this year. (See this EdNews story for more details about the commission and its members.)

The meeting opened with a gloomy briefing by state budget director Todd Saliman and a sobering presentation about the deterioration of the state system and the threat that poses to Colorado’s economic competitiveness, given by David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The new commission will do part of its work in four subcommittees, which will include steering committee and outside members, including representatives of state colleges and universities.

One of those subcommittees will study higher ed finances, and state higher ed director Rico Munn may have surprised some members when he said that subcommittee also will be expected to come up with some short-term financial suggestions for possible consideration by the 2010 legislature.

Don Elliman, Ritter’s chief operating officer, indicated that the subcommittee’s assignment was made partly to forestall a legislative study of higher education. Munn and Elliman are advising the commission.

Fighting over jailed kids

Late in the afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee turned its attention to Senate Bill 10-054, which would require school districts to provide educational services to juveniles being held in county jails after having been charged as adults. A legislative fiscal analysis estimates an $113,378 annual cost to the state and that the bill would “increase costs for the school districts.”

The hearing created the uncomfortable spectacle of school lobbyists testifying against the bill, and juvenile justice advocates and district attorney and sheriffs’ lobbyists supporting it.

“Districts are doing everything they can just to keep the schoolhouse doors open” and can’t afford the added cost for educating a few students in jail, said Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the school boards association.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and prime sponsor of the bill, called educating jailed kids “a moral and legal obligation.”

Two committee Republicans opposed the bill and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Denver, was clearly lukewarm, but she voted for the bill in the end, and it passed 4-2. It move on to an uncertain fate in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any bill with any price tag will get tough scrutiny there in this lean budget year.

The last word

The mood of the day may have been unintentionally summed up by Greg Stevinson, a member of the Commission  on Higher Education who is also serving on the new steering committee.

Reflecting on the situation of higher education for the past several years, he said: “We’ve been fighting over scraps. Now there aren’t any scraps left.”

In other news

The Senate Education Committee killed Senate Bill 10-017, a proposal by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, which would have provided grants to school districts to study weighted-student funding programs. The program would have been funded by “gifts, grants and donations.”

Introduced Wednesday was House Bill 10-1208, which would require creation of at least 14 college credit transfer agreements under which students could transfer their associate’s degree credits in those specified majors to four-year schools. While such students could be required to take additional lower division courses in their majors, the bill specifies that they still should be able to graduate at the same time as similar students who’d started at those four-year schools.

Credit transfer has been a touchy issue in the past, with higher education resisting attempts at legislative mandates. State colleges and universities currently have an extensive but patchwork system of course transfers.

This bill could be a fast track, though, as it has 47 cosponsors in both houses and from both parties. Among them are House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder. (Sen. King, a longtime advocate of easy credit transfers, has not signed on to the bill.)

The sweetener for higher ed may be that the 14 transfer agreements don’t have to be in place until 2016.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.