LegislatureNewsState budget

Senate gives preliminary OK to 2018-19 state budget

Author: Marianne Goodland - April 4, 2018 - Updated: April 12, 2018

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This WeekA low-angle view of inside of gold dome of the Colorado state Capitol building in Denver. (Photo by SeanXu, istockphoto)

DENVER — The Colorado Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to House Bill 1322, the Long Appropriations Bill, working through 78 84 85 118 (oh heck, I give up!) amendments proposed to the $28.9 billion state budget into late Wednesday night.

By evening’s end, the Senate managed to blow an even bigger hole in the state budget ($73 million in additional general fund spending) than the House did a week earlier ($63 million). The Senate gave a thumbs-up to 23 amendments during the 10-hour debate on the budget.

That $73 million will likely have to be pared down by the Joint Budget Committee in order for the budget to get back into the black, since the surplus general fund revenue available is only $40.8 million.

Any amendment that doesn’t have bipartisan support is destined for the scrap heap when the JBC, which acts as the conference committee, meets next week to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions, once the Senate votes on the package Thursday.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee took the Long Bill back to its original spending, stripping off the 33 amendments added by the House last week.

On Wednesday the Senate went to work on its amendments, with some attempting to restore some of the spending added to the Long Bill by the House.

The night’s biggest drama wasn’t exactly over what was in an amendment, but in how the Senate’s JBC members voted on it.

What caused the drama was an amendment approved last week by the House and offered Wednesday by Republican Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton: to add a $35 million general fund appropriation to the Department of Public Safety. That money would hire police officers for schools and pay for safety enhancements to school facilities.

Initially, the Neville amendment and another like it failed earlier in the day on the standard voice vote reserved for floor debate.

The amendment was resuscitated when the Senate moved into what’s known as the Committee of the Whole (COW) report, generally a last opportunity to ask one more time for amendment approval along with a recorded vote.

The Neville amendment drew a 20-15 vote in favor, including from the JBC’s two Republican senators, Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs and Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud. Usually, JBC members don’t vote in favor of amendments that add spending to the Long Bill and that didn’t come from the JBC. That held true for the Senate’s other JBC member, Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, who voted against the Neville amendment.

Once the final votes had been tallied and the members prepared to call it a day, Moreno went to the microphone to address the Senate. He pointed out that some of the strongest customs and traditions in the General Assembly belong to the JBC. Yet some of his votes had been called into question, “something I don’t take lightly,” he said. There were amendments he would have liked to vote for, along with his caucus, but he voted against them as part of the JBC tradition. Moreno, who appeared tearful, said he wasn’t shown the same courtesy by his fellow JBC members.

“I’m really sorry that wasn’t upheld tonight, and I’m ashamed to be a member of that committee.”

The three later huddled to talk out their differences and shook hands after.

Among the other amendments approved by the Senate Wednesday:

  • An additional $8 million in general fund dollars was approved for the state’s broadband deployment fund to finance rural high-speed internet.
  • The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo got $9.4 million in general fund dollars added to its budget to pay for increases in direct care staff salaries.
  • One amendment added $6 million to the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program, to be funded by marijuana tax revenues. That same amendment also passed the House.

Later in the evening, Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, when asking for amendments to be rejected, calculated either just how many teachers the amendment’s dollars would pay for, or how many miles or lanes of highway it would cover. He did that for most of the COW amendments, save one he voted for: the $35 million school safety addition.

The Senate also worked through the 18 accompanying bills intended to balance the budget. Among them: House Bill 1340, which set aside $495 million in general fund dollars to fund transportation projects. House Democrats amended the bill last week to require 15 percent of those dollars to go to multimodal projects, over the objections of House Republicans.

The Senate Appropriations Committee restored the formula back to its original version and removed the multimodal addition, and despite efforts by Democrats Wednesday, stuck to the original formula.

Sonnenberg made an attempt to restore some of the nearly $387 million the General Assembly has raided from the state’s severance tax revenues over the last 17 years in order to balance the budget. Sonnenberg’s amendment to House Bill 1338 tried to tap some of the state’s $1.3 billion revenue surplus to pay back $276 million to several severance tax accounts. But the dollars are no longer available to pay back those funds, which support operations in the Department of Natural Resources, pay for water projects and mitigate the impact of drilling operations on local communities.

“Unfortunately, we squandered money today,” Sonnenberg said. “We spent money on pet projects. We took money from education. We took money from highways. The money isn’t there to pay this back. We spent money like drunken sailors and on things that are not priorities.”

Among the amendments that got attention, if not votes:

  • An amendment from Democratic Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs to eliminate funding for the Colorado State Board of Education and shift it to special education programs. Merrifield sponsored a bill earlier this session that attempted to remove the board’s authority to force local school districts to approve charter schools that had been previously rejected by those local school districts. Merrifield also has introduced a referred measure to go to voters to repeal the state board of education.
  • Two amendments attempting to add more than $200 million to the Department of Education. One amendment, sponsored by 15 of the chamber’s 16 Democrats, would have reduced the state debt to K-12 education by $224 million; the other, carried by three Democrats, would have spent $267 million on teacher salaries.

The Senate will vote on the budget bill and its accompanying measures on Thursday.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.