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Now it’s education’s turn for cuts

More than $260 million, nearly 4.6 percent, would be cut from state total program support for K-12 schools under the 2010-11 budget unveiled by Gov. Bill Ritter on Friday.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter discusses his proposed 2010-11 budget on Nov. 6, 2009.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter discusses his proposed 2010-11 budget on Nov. 6, 2009.

The state’s higher education system would see a decline in state and federal stimulus support from the current $706 million to $650 million. But, total college and university spending would grow slightly to about $1.98 billion, because the governor is proposing another 9 percent tuition increase for Colorado resident students.

Support for K-12 largely has been shielded from cuts during previous slashing of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 state budgets. College and university spending has been held to stand-pat levels only with the help of federal stimulus funds.

The legislature is expected to cut $110 million from current K-12 spending after it convenes in January. If that cut is made, the base would be reduced and Ritter’s new cuts would net out to about $150 million.

With state revenue projections continuing to drop and stimulus money due to run out in 2011, the administration has been forced to propose cuts, transfers and revenue increases to cover a shortfall in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The governor’s K-12 and higher ed spending plans set the stage for extensive debate and hard bargaining over the meaning of Amendment 23, the constitutional formula that drives state school spending, and over whether college and university boards should be given greater financial freedom to manage their campuses.

Cuts in K-12 support could translate into larger class sizes, job losses, frozen salaries and other unpleasant economies at schools across the state.

Overall, Ritter is proposing $7.1 billion in state general fund spending in 2010-11, down from about $7.5 billion this year. (The grand total of annual state spending is in the $19 billion range, including federal, cash and other funds.)

The governor also is suggesting that the legislature end 13 tax exemptions and credits to raise nearly $132 million in new revenue. Those could be controversial with lawmakers, particularly a plan to raise $15 million by charging sales taxes on candy and soft drinks. Those proposals also are expected to spark a debate over whether the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and subsequent court interpretations allow the legislature to make such changes.

The governor proposes, but the legislature has the final word on the state budget. The Joint Budget Committee will hold budget hearings this month and next, and a new revenue forecast in late December could change the picture. The final budget won’t be adopted until next April, after March revenue forecasts are issued.

What they’re saying

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards: “When you look at the overall picture, this is a fairly modest cut.” She said CASB has been telling school boards to plan their budgets for three levels of cuts – 4, 6 and 8 percent. “This is just the first chapter; we’re a long way from knowing what the full picture is … there are so many things that can happen between now and April.”

She added, “I’m surprised it’s not 6 percent. The governor’s done the best he can do. … It’s going to be a real battle once it hits the General Assembly.” Urschel predicted any challenge to the budget on Amendment 23 grounds wouldn’t come until later, “when things shake out.” She added CASB still is telling school boards to plan for larger cuts.

Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association: She was diplomatic in her response, saying it’s important to consider what the voters’ intent was when passing Amendment 23 and that the better way to deal with the budget crisis is by looking “at those tax loopholes.” CEA is part of a coalition that’s lobbying the legislature to not make the $110 million 2009-10 cut.

Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives: He said the “unsettling” thing to him about the plan is the tax exemptions. “If those don’t pass the cuts to K-12 could grow.” Calling the plan “an unprecedented cut,” Caughey said, “We’re going in the wrong direction completely … and we’re not addressing the constitutional problem that’s limiting our ability to fund our schools adequately.”

If Amendment 23 was supposed to be a floor for education spending, Caughey said, “Now there’s a big hole in the floor.”

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