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No further cuts to K-12 for 2010-11

The Joint Budget Committee Thursday closed out its balancing work on the current 2010-11 state general fund budget without needing to make any significant additional cuts to K-12 support or higher education.

One Department of Education program did take a glancing blow as the JBC voted 4-2 to sweep $750,000 from the $5 million Colorado Counselor Corps program, which pays for extra counselors and expanded counseling services in middle and high schools spanning more than two dozen districts.

The committee was able to avoid cuts to key education programs such as basic school support by deciding to set the general fund reserve at 2.3 percent, rather than the typical 4 percent.

Earlier, the JBC had decided that schools won’t receive $16 million for increases in overall enrollment and in numbers of at-risk students but did recommend that the state cover a $23 million hole created when school district property tax revenues came in lower than forecast.

The takeaway is that schools will receive the $5.4 billion in state and local support budgeted for 2010-11. They’ll just have to spread that money among about 1 percent more students than expected when the budget was approved last spring. The net effect of that is $10.44 less per pupil this year.

The package of budget-balancing bills (which, of course, covers a lot more than education) is expected to be introduced in the legislature next Monday and will require approval in both houses and signature by Gov. John Hickenlooper to go into effect.

Budget committee members will have to shepherd those bills through the Senate and House as they begin the lengthy process of figure setting for the 2011-12 budget, which is expected to include significant cuts for both K-12 and higher ed. (Education figure setting isn’t scheduled until mid-March.)

If the cut in the counseling program cut is approved by the full legislature, it would pull back money intended for “performance awards” this month to 50 schools in 17 districts. That money doesn’t involve the main program, for which $3.9 million already has been granted, but is money is intended to be used for additional college counseling and planning services, JBC analyst Carolyn Kampman told the committee.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, moved to make the cut, saying it didn’t make sense “to give extra awards to districts while we’re trying to cut budgets.”

The JBC is trying to finish work balancing the current 2010-11 state budget.

Chair Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, said, “I have some problems with promising money and then taking it back. I don’t want to do this unless it’s the last balancing thing we do.”

But, she and Rep. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, were outvoted by Ferrandino and the panel’s three Republican members, Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs and Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.

The JBC’s action would take back $689,298 in performance awards and $65,452 in additional funds that weren’t going to be spent.

The districts affected by the action are Aurora, Branson, Brighton, Center, Cherry Creek, Cripple Creek-Victor, Denver, Falcon, Harrison, Karval, Lake County, Montezuma-Cortez, Mesa Valley, Poudre and St. Vrain, plus the Charter School Institute.

The counselor corps was the product of the optimistic 2008 legislative session, before the recession fully hit and when there was extra money for new education programs. Some of those programs were lightly funded to start with, and several have been trimmed in the cutback years of 2009 and 2010.

On another matter, the committee has not yet revisited the hot-button but financially insignificant issue of additional spending authority for the Start Smart school breakfast program.

Key piece of 2011-12 budget advances

The Senate Finance Committee cast a reluctant but perhaps unavoidable 7-0 vote Thursday to advance Senate Bill 11-076, a Public Employees’ Retirement Association bill that the JBC considers necessary to creating a balanced budget next year.

Last session the legislature changed some employer and employee contribution rates for the current, 2010-11 budget year. The change covered PERA’s state (which includes a significant number of higher education employees) and judicial divisions.

The move decreased the employer contribution rate by 2.5 percent and increased the employee rate by a corresponding 2.5 percent. SB 11-076, proposes to continue the switch for the 2011-12 budget year.

The bill will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee Friday morning.

Budget resolution talks off

The House changed its mind Thursday and decided not to talk to the Senate about House Joint Resolution 11-1007, the controversial but largely symbolic measure that sets a revenue target for the 2011-12 budget.

Earlier in the week the House voted to reject Senate amendments and go to a conference committee on this issue. On Wednesday the Senate named its members to that committee, which was scheduled to meet at noon Thursday. But before that could happen, the House voted 33-32 to maintain its position and dissolve the conference committee.

The resolution is required by state law but isn’t binding on the JBC when writing the annual state budget bill. The debate has been a philosophical one about budgeting. Republicans argue that the revenue target should be set lower than suggested by legislative economists as a prudent way to avoid mid-year budget cuts later, such as those just finished by the JBC.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Democrats fear doing that would lead to unnecessary budget cuts in key programs such as K-12 education.

Senate Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a prime sponsor of the resolution, said that since the resolution has no effect, “there’s no incentive to compromise” in the conference committee, so House Republicans apparently decided to just make their political statement.

Johnston said he wouldn’t be surprised if legislation is introduced to eliminate the requirement for the annual resolution.