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Proposed budget cuts spare education

Gov. Bill Ritter Tuesday detailed $320 million in proposed state budget cuts and shifts designed to cover the revenue shortfall created by the recession.

The plan proposes no cuts to the formula-driven state support for K-12 schools, projected to total more than $3 billion. Ritter and budget director Todd Saliman told the Joint Budget Committee that K-12 spending is protected by Amendment 23.

The proposal does include an $80.9 million cut in general fund support for the state’s colleges and universities, which already has been trimmed to 2005-06 levels of state support and 2008-09 overall spending. But, the administration plans to back fill that $80.9 million cut with additional federal stimulus funds, which already are being used heavily to support higher ed.

The budget picture may be darker for K-12 in 2010-11. Saliman said that K-12 general fund support is expected to be flat in the proposed 2010-11 budget that the governor will submit to the committee in November. That’s because one requirement of Amendment 23, that general fund school support increase 5 percent a year, will be suspended because state revenue growth has dropped below a level specified in the amendment. Two other key factors in the amendment’s formula are enrollment growth and inflation. Flat enrollment growth and little or no inflation this year, as state economists are forecasting, could mean overall growth in K-12 spending could be as little as 1 or 2 percent in 2010-11.

School districts also receive funding from a separate account, the State Education Fund. The 2009 legislature put a hold on $110 million in the fund’s allotment for schools and will decide in January whether to release it or retain it. Most observers expect lawmakers will not release the funds. (The $110 million and the fund were not part of the Ritter-Saliman plan released Tuesday.)

Commenting on higher education, “That reduction will be fully covered by federal stimulus dollars,” Saliman told the committee during a standing-room-only briefing in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers. “We’ll be seeking a federal waiver to enable us to implement this proposal,” he added. He said other states have receive such waivers.

Federal regulations require states to maintain tax-dollar support at 2005-06 levels to be eligible for the stimulus, but that requirement can be waived.

General fund spending is supported by state tax revenues. Colleges and universities also receive substantial support from tuition and fees, plus federal and other grants.

Saliman said the $80.9 million cut in state support will have to be restored in the next fiscal year, 2010-11, under the terms of a waiver.

A news conference followed the JBC meeting, and Ritter was asked if he feels some sort of tax increase for higher education should be proposed to voters. He said that will depend on the recommendations of the Department of Higher Education’s 18-month master plan process, which kicks off next month.

The governor also was non-commital when asked if supports tax changes during the 2010 legislative session. Some lawmakers have been pushing to close some business sales tax exemptions. “I’m not going to try to predict how that discussion will go,” Ritter said. But he did say it would weaken state economic-development efforts to eliminate exemptions that other states also offer.

Overall, the budget-balancing plan appears to be more surgical than across-the-board. The largest percentage cuts are in the departments of agriculture, military and veterans affairs, natural resources, regulatory agencies and in the governor’s office. As with K-12 education, no cuts are proposed for the departments of transportation and labor and employment, which receive no general fund support.

Ritter and Saliman said the plan was designed to minimize as much as possible cuts to human services and medical programs that serve vulnerable Coloradans.

But, Ritter said, “You cannot reduce spending this much without impacting services. … There is a lot of sacrifice Colorado citizens will experience.”

The plan is expected to cut about 266 state jobs, through holding vacant jobs open, layoffs or other steps. State employee pay raises have been frozen until July 2011, and most state workers will have at least four unpaid furlough days.

Cuts of note to other departments include:

Closing 59 beds at the Colorado Mental Health Center at Fort Logan
Closing a 32-bed nursing facility in Grand Juntion
Reducing health care provider rates by 1.5 percent, plus other health cuts totaling $115 million
Changing parole spending by concentrating services on inmates entering parole and spending less on those nearly the end of parole, for a $19 million savings
Eliminating $1 million for Tony Grampsas Youth Services grants
Some spending from cash funds also is being reduced, primarily grants to local governments, especially those in energy production regions.

Reductions that don’t require legislative approval will be implemented Sept. 1 in most cases. Detailed plans will be submitted to the JBC Aug. 24.

Recession-driven revenue drops started last year, and the 2009 legislature had to cut about $1.4 billion from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets. Updated revenue forecasts issued in late June showed that further 2009-10 cuts would be required, which Saliman estimated Tuesday at $318 million. (The gap originally was estimated at about $400 million.) The next formal revenue forecasts will be issued in late September.

General fund spending totals about $7 billion of some $18.7 billion in overall state spending. That grand total includes federal money (for things like health programs) and cash funds such as college tuition, fuel taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, lottery revenues, hunting licenses and other fees. So, a cut of about $320 million represents about 2 percent of total spending.

Governor’s budget cut presentation and details (PDF)
Gov. Bill Ritter and JBC Chair Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, discuss proposed 2009-10 budget cuts

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