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Counselor Corps funding restored

The Senate Friday bucked the wishes of the Joint Budget Committee and restored about $750,000 in Colorado Counselor Corps funding that the JBC had proposed cutting to help balance the current 2010-11 budget.

The decision came during a morning-long wrangle over a package of budget balancing bills, a debate marked by lengthy partisan and regional disagreements.

The committee voted 4-2 on Feb. 3 to pull back funds that would have gone to 50 schools in 17 districts. That funding is supplemental and doesn’t involve counselor jobs or the main program, for which $3.9 million already has been granted. (See this story for background.)

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, argued Feb. 11, 2011, for restoration of school counseling funding.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, argued Feb. 11, 2011, for restoration of school counseling funding.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, led the charge to restore the funding, saying, “This is very important for us to do.” Stressing the importance of counseling to students, she asked, “What better use of our state money could there be?”

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, argued against restoration of the funds, urging senators to “think globally” about the budget and noting that the cut wouldn’t affect the core of the counseling program. Bacon was a sponsor of the bill creating the program.

JBC Chair Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, said, “Thank you Sen. Bacon for being the voice of reason.”

The JBC generally resists legislative tinkering with budget balancing bills because the package is designed to balance to a specific figure, and changes can force the committee to rebalance.

But some members argued that restoration of the counseling funds wouldn’t disrupt the balancing package because a few minutes earlier the Senate had voted to sweep $4 million from a Department of State cash fund into the balancing effort, adding money that wasn’t in the original package.

That money has been the focus of a tug of war between the legislature and new Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, and the Senate’s action sparked a partisan debate that flared across the morning.

In addition to the fight over the secretary of state’s cash, there were long debates over JBC shifts in severance tax revenues and gaming income.

Other education items in the balancing package include restoration of $124,229 in spending authority to the Start Smart school breakfast program; addition of $23 million to state school aid to cover lower-than-projected local revenues, and reduction of $165 million in state aid that districts are expected to offset with a equal amount of federal jobs Edujobs money. The legislature is not providing an estimated $16 million districts would otherwise receive because of enrollment increases.

During the debate senators regretted the need to make cuts and transfers, but Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, repeatedly warned them that the decisions will be even harder once the 2011-12 budget comes to the floor.

After expected final Senate passage of the 2010-11 balancing package early next week, the bills move the Republican-controlled House. Because of the partisan nature of the Department of State cut, the package could well change in the House.