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Senate Republicans: Budget debate is about priorities, not ‘cuts’

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Majority Republicans in the Colorado Senate say it is unfair to frame upcoming budget talks as being about “cuts,” pointing out that spending continues to grow.

A quarterly revenue forecast presented by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office on Friday indicated that lawmakers must trim about $700 million in order to pass a balanced budget based on the governor’s November request.

Hickenlooper’s $28.5 billion budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July would represent an increase of 3.3 percent over last year, with a 3.7 percent rise in discretionary spending, bringing the General Fund to $10.9 billion.

On Friday, Hickenlooper’s budget director, Henry Sobanet, said lawmakers would have to close a nearly $700 million hole to bring the budget request into balance. The gap comes because new financial demands facing the state outpace anticipated revenue.

Lawmakers would have to trim the $700 million if they adopt all of the governor’s proposals, an unlikely outcome as the legislature heads into so-called “Long Bill” debates next week.

In the meantime, Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker is trying to steer the conversation away from being about “cuts,” noting that the budget continues to grow in Colorado.

“We have more revenue, it’s a question of how much increase there will be,” Holbert said Monday at a briefing with reporters.

“It isn’t that we have a budget that we cut from last year’s funding levels, we will increase from last year’s funding levels, but how much of an increase in spending there will be in each line item is really the question.”

The revenue forecast presented by the governor’s office on Friday stated that the shortfall grew by about $135 million since the last forecast in December.

Democrats expressed frustration, stating that the state should not be discussing shifting money in order to balance spending for critical areas such as schools, health care and roads, especially at a time when Colorado’s economy is booming. Many observers view those shifts in funding as “cuts” to specific services and programs.

“Our options just got uglier,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, which crafts the state budget. “Our spending levels for K-12 education are very much at risk, and other belt-tightening measures will have to be taken unless we act.”

But Republicans say it’s a matter of priorities, pointing out that Medicaid dollars continue to grow, and that some critical services such as K-12 education were funded last year at higher levels than the governor requested.

“We still haven’t made decisions on funding certain programs, so we just have to balance those things out,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, chairman of the JBC. “We will have adequate funding to do that.”

Holbert added that it is a good thing that Colorado law requires lawmakers to pass a balanced budget each year.

“We can’t spend more than we have, we can’t deficit spend, we can’t borrow like the federal government does, and we can’t print money,” Holbert said. “People find reassurance from that.”

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