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Schools get good news, sort of

The last-minute budget deal reached by the Republican House and the Democratic Senate at midday Tuesday means the state’s schools will see $250 million in total program funding cuts, down from the previously projected $332 million, for 2011-12.

That represents an average cut of 4.6 percent.

That cut would be on top of the $260 million reduction schools received this year compared to 2009-10 levels.

Legislative Democrats said the budget deal accomplished their objective of cushioning education cuts. “We did the best we could for education,” the Democrats’ goal from the start of the session, said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton and chair of the Joint Budget Committee. She was at the center of the days of negotiations that led up to Tuesday’s deal.

Colorado lawmakers sealed the 2011-12 budget deal during this midday huddle on the Senate floor.
Colorado lawmakers sealed the 2011-12 budget deal during this midday huddle on the Senate floor.

Education leaders were relieved by not wildly enthusiastic about the final deal. “We appreciate the continued efforts of state leadership to meet the needs of our children in the face of shrinking revenues,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee, told fellow Democrats during a caucus, “We’ve been arguing about nickels in the couch.” He noted that the state budget is $800-$900 million short of full Amendment 23 funding. “We’re not keeping up with the constitutional and the moral obligation of funding education.”

Under the budget deal, total program spending, the combination of state and local funds used to pay for basic school operations, would drop from $5.44 billion this year to about $5.15 billion in 2011-12. Average per-pupil funding would drop from $6,823 to $6,439. That funding is below 2008-09 levels.

The 2011-12 budget bill was supposed to have been introduced in the Senate March 28. The legislature has split control for the first time in several sessions, and that drove a budget stalemate between the House and Senate.

The Senate, with both majority Democrats and minority Republicans in general agreement, was on the verge of introducing its own budget bill Tuesday afternoon, just to get formal deliberations rolling. But last-minute talks with the House finally clicked, and the deal was announced during an informal huddle of lawmakers and executive branch budget officials at the press table on the Senate floor.

The JBC convened at 1:30 p.m. to formally move the main budget measure, Senate Bill 11-209, to the Senate floor, along with several companion measures needed to balance the full budget package. Among them is Senate Bill 11-230, the annual school finance bill. It’s the measure that will be used to set the $250 million K-12 cut.

Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped in to the JBC meeting briefly to congratulate lawmakers on the budget compromise and the room, packed with lobbyists and state agency officials, broke into applause after the committee approved the main budget bill.

The K-12 part of the deal includes using $36 million in state school lands revenues to help pay for school operations and also using State Education Fund money, although a balance of about $120 million will be left in that fund as a reserve against what’s expected to be an equally tough budget situation for 2012-13. Several small, specialized education accounts also will be swept into the State Education Fund.

Other elements of the deal include transferring some severance tax funds into the state general fund, elimination of a tax on agricultural supplies, gradual reinstatement of a fee paid to retailers for collecting sales taxes, transfer of some tobacco settlement revenues to the general fund and maintaining the state reserve at 4 percent of the general fund.

One sticking point in the negotiations had been a House Republican proposal to allow school boards to reduce their contributions to employee pensions while requiring teachers and other employees to pay more. That idea will be dropped. But a plan to continue a similar swap for state and some higher education employees will go forward.

Higher education funding was not part of the budget controversy and is proposed at the same levels as recommended by Hickenlooper and approved by the JBC earlier. That plan includes $519 million in state support for colleges and universities, down from the $555 million that had been requested. Overall higher education revenues of roughly $2 billion, the majority of which comes from tuition, are projected to be down at least $30 million.

State general fund spending next year will be about $7.1 billion out of a total state budget of about $19 billion, including federal money and various dedicated funds that the legislature doesn’t appropriate.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer (left), House Speaker Frank McNulty (light shirt) and other lawmakers talked with reporters about the budget deal at the end of an eventful day.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer (left), House Speaker Frank McNulty (light shirt) and other lawmakers talked with reporters about the budget deal at the end of an eventful day.

Legislative leaders had nothing but praise for each other after the deal was done.

Freshman Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan and a JBC member, summed it all up. “This budget has something for everyone to love and hate. It’s a great thing to close this out.”

The budget package will follow the traditional process from here, with consideration by Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses Wednesday, review by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, preliminary floor debate on Friday and final votes on bills in the package next Monday. After that, the process will be repeated in the House.

The appropriations committee will hold a hearing on SB 11-230, the school finance bill, at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Members in both houses are allowed to propose amendments to budget bills, a process that likely will take hours in caucuses and on the floor. But additions to one part of the budget have to balanced by cuts elsewhere, so few if any amendments will be successful.

Even before last year’s K-12 cuts, the legislature had been shaving school funding in response to budget pressures. In 2009-10, total program funding was about $5.6 billion, not the $5.7 billion called for by the old interpretation of Amendment 23. Average per-pupil funding was $7,075.

Quote of the day

On hearing that the tax on agricultural supplies, including bull semen for artificial insemination, would be rolled back, Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, told her Democratic colleagues: “We’re talking about spreading the pain. We ought to spread it to the cows. They can reproduce naturally for a year.”

In other action

Lost in Tuesday’s budget hubbub was the House’s re-passage of House Bill 11-1069, the measure that requires minimum amounts of physical activity – broadly defined – in elementary schools. The bill had gone to conference committee, was re-passed by the Senate and now goes to the governor.

The House also accepted Senate amendments and re-passed House Bill 11-1126, which mandates parental involvement in school improvement plans, and House Bill 11-1169, which allows broader sharing of threat information between college police and administrators.

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