No school cuts, but no refunds either in Colorado budget


DENVER | Colorado won’t see deep education cuts next year, but it won’t see taxpayer refunds, either.

A $27 billion budget up for debate Thursday in the state House includes a slight per-pupil increase for K-12 schools. That’s something budget writers didn’t expect to see a few months ago, when it looked like tax collections would trigger some $150 million worth of mandatory tax rebates under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The proposal also spares state colleges and doctors who treat the poor from budget cuts. However, it does slash $73 million from hospitals, part of a complicated arrangement to avoid even deeper cuts later.

Some things to know about the proposed budget:



Schools and colleges are not getting budget cuts. K-12 schools are getting a net increase of $153 million next school year, enough to keep pace with growth in student enrollment. Schools are also getting $20 million from marijuana excise taxes for construction, in compliance with how voters said to spend pot money. Colleges and vocational training programs also fared well, getting an extra $14.5 million despite warnings from legislative Democrats that Colorado’s 31 public institutions of higher education would see budget cuts requiring steeper tuition hikes.



Doctors treating the poor were also spared from budget cuts. Democrats had talked about slashing payments to primary care doctors serving clients on Medicaid, but that cut was avoided. Hospitals are being cut by a cumulative $73 million, though. That’s part of a complicated deal struck to keep the state from having to issue taxpayer refunds. The budget doesn’t include a maneuver endorsed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, to re-classify some hospital fees to give the state even more spending room before issuing refunds. That proposal, on a tax called the Hospital Provider Fee, will come later. Republicans control the Senate and have said the hospital fee proposal is dead on arrival there, making that change unlikely this year.



The state Department of Transportation is getting some long-awaited money for roads. The spending plan calls for about $150 million for road construction and upgrades. That’s only 75 percent of what the state was supposed to spend next year, but better than some CDOT officials feared when Gov. John Hickenlooper predicted last year that the budget would need deep cuts because of constitutionally mandated refunds known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds.



The Department of Agriculture is due to get an extra $1 million to hire seven marijuana inspectors. A series of high-profile product recalls over the last year have raised concerns about unauthorized chemicals being used on retail marijuana, but the Agriculture Department has said it needs more inspectors to ensure that Colorado’s 500 or so recreational pot growers aren’t using banned chemicals.



The budget does not include a TABOR refund next year. Legislative budget writers expected to see some $150 million refunded to taxpayers next budget year because tax collections were outstripping constitutional budget restraints. That prospect had Democrats scrambling to try a legislative maneuver to shift some fees paid by hospitals in order to avoid issuing the refunds. Instead, cooling tax collections and a pre-emptive $90 million cut to hospitals kept Colorado’s books below the number that would have triggered taxpayer refunds.

State employees won’t get pay raises. The spending plan includes no money for pay hikes or merit raises.



Lawmakers will argue over global warming and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Hickenlooper wants lawmakers to approve some $200,000 for the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to work on the Clean Power Plan. But the plan is on hold because of a February decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Republicans say it’s a waste of money to begin working on the plan to reduce carbon emissions.