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Hickenlooper: Schools must share burden of state budget balancing

Gov. John Hickenlooper (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)
Gov. John Hickenlooper (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Gov. John Hickenlooper told legislators Thursday that K-12 spending needs to share the pain of a tight state budget situation along with other big-ticket programs.

“When we looked at making the cuts we thought that we should try to share that pain … everybody should feel that constriction. It seems equitable,” the governor told members of the Joint Budget Committee and other lawmakers.

The remarks came in response to a question as Hickenlooper and budget director Henry Sobanet presented his proposed 2016-17 budget, an annual event that starts the run-up to the next legislative session.

The administration actually isn’t proposing to cut K-12 spending from 2015-16 levels. Average per-pupil funding would increase to $7,397 from this year’s $7,284, up 1.4 percent. But the governor is proposing to increase the school funding shortfall to $905 million from $855 million.

That shortfall, known as the negative factor, is the difference between actual school spending and what support would be under full application of the state’s funding formula. The negative factor is a major sore point for school districts.

Four big demands – required K-12 increases, $289 million in required tax refunds, refilling the state reserve and paying higher Medicaid costs – add up to $830 million in 2016-17. But there’s only $457 million in projected new revenue available to meet those costs.

“With a deficit of $373 million, you’re going to see reductions or inability to grow in the top four areas,” said Sobanet.

“As we look forward … at least keeping the negative factor steady should be a priority,” the governor said.

The way to control the negative factor and ease pressure on other parts of the budget is to change a program called the hospital provider fee, he argued. While it isn’t a general tax, the fee counts against the annual constitutional revenue limit, triggering those taxpayer refunds.

“The current structure of the hospital fee will prevent us from meeting our most basic needs,” Hickenlooper said. “We should at least be able to use the resources we have.”

New Joint Budget Committee chair Millie Hamner, a Democratic House member from Dillon, asked what happens in future years if lawmakers don’t approve Hickenlooper’s proposal to reclassify the fee so it doesn’t count against the revenue limit.

“It’s hard to see a scenario … where the negative factor doesn’t grow a little bit,” Sobanet said.

Hickenlooper also was asked how the public can be educated about the state’s fiscal restrictions and be persuaded to change contradictory constitutional requirements.

“Funding is critical. We need to get the facts out to people. But at the same time we’ve also got to find innovation in education,” the governor replied.

Higher education, which unlike K-12 would take actual cuts under the governor’s budget, got scant mention during the presentation.

“We’ve been proud to increase support for resident undergraduate students” in the last two years, Hickenlooper said. “It is not possible to continue current levels of spending into 2016-17.” … That “will likely result in higher tuition increases at many institutions.”

School funding also on superintendents’ minds

Budget problems also got an airing earlier Thursday at the annual superintendent forum sponsored by the Public Education & Business Coalition.

“We’ve been in a slow downward spiral for 20 years,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger. Paying taxpayer refunds while squeezing K-12 is “just wrong, and we need to make a change.”

New Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert said that when he explains the fiscal problem to district residents, “They are shocked and appalled that we are going to give refunds.”

Chris Gdowski, superintendent of the Adams 12-Five Star district, said districts have been economizing for years. “We’ve ridden that horse as far as we can in Adams 12. So the only thing that’s going to help us down the road … is to get more money into the system.”

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