DENVER (AP) – Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing state lawmakers slash public school funding by $375 million to help come to grips with an estimated $1 billion budget gap that’s looming as federal stimulus money dries up and the economy continues to lag.
The budget proposal that the new governor unveiled at the Capitol on Tuesday also includes a $125 million cut for state colleges and universities compared to this year and cutting about 250 state jobs, including 149 at the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Las Animas, which would be closed. Hickenlooper is also recommending the closure of Bonny Lake State Park and scaling back services at three other parks — Sweitzer, Harvey Gap and Paonia.
Hickenlooper also wants to increase the state’s reserve fund from 2 percent to 4 percent of the budget, enough to keep the state operating for about 14 days, in case revenues continue to drop or demand for state services like Medicaid rises more than expected. That’s about an extra $100 million that might have otherwise gone to schools.
The proposal is a first step in coming up with a spending plan for the budget year that begins in July. State lawmakers still must come up with a plan of their own and pass it before adjourning in May, sending it to Hickenlooper for approval.
Hickenlooper said the cuts, especially to schools, were difficult but the state has no choice but to live within its means. He said schools account for about 40 percent of the state’s budget and when deep cuts are needed, it’s impossible to avoid cutting them.
“The four letter word today is math and we have structural imbalance to the budget,” he said after presenting the proposal to members of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee.
The proposed school cuts follow a $260 million reduction for kindergarten through 12th grade this year.
Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the combined 14 percent reduction would reach into the classroom, forcing districts to consider teacher layoffs, larger classes and shorter school weeks. She estimated that more teachers and other school workers would lose their jobs than the 250 in job cuts proposed for state workers. However, with stimulus money running out and state funds already maxed out by the recession, she acknowledged that cuts for schools were inevitable.
Cindy Stevensen, the Superintendent for Jefferson County Schools said the budget cut is scary.
“They’re devastating. We understand there are not a lot of choices for the governor and the state,we do get that. however when you start talking about 6-year-olds it’s pretty scary,” Stevensen said.
Urschel said Congress passed funding to help avert wide-scale layoffs this school year but she doesn’t expect any more help to come from Washington.
Coloradans need to start a serious conversation about raising revenue to restore school funding, said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association, a teachers’ union.
“The quality of education today will largely drive the quality of the Colorado economy and the size of our tax base in the future,” Ingle said.
Republican lawmakers praised Hickenlooper for presenting what they said was an honest assessment of the state’s budget problems. Some Democrats, though, and others beyond the Capitol hinted at whether it was time to start looking at whether the state needs to take in more revenue to pay for the services people expect.
Colorado AFL-CIO executive director Mike Cerbo, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said elected officials need to start talking about stabilizing funding for schools and state services as well as improving the economy.
“If we cannot have this conversation, then the people of Colorado can expect many more days like today in the years ahead,” he said.
Hickenlooper, a former restaurateur, said he didn’t think there was any appetite for raising taxes in the middle of the recession. He said lawmakers should instead do everything they can to make Colorado more business friendly, which he said would ultimately help the state’s economy improve and bring in more revenue. However, he did leave the door open to talking about Colorado’s patchwork of constitutional amendments, which both limit taxes, mandate spending increases and push more of the local tax burden on businesses.
Hickenlooper, like former Gov. Bill Ritter, is using a new legal interpretation of Amendment 23 — which requires school spending to increase — to reduce overall funding for schools by chipping away at extra funding the state provides for things like cost-of-living differences.
Hickenlooper’s proposal also assumes the tax measures passed under Ritter will remain in place. They include requiring online retailers to remind Coloradans to pay sales tax on their purchases, a measure that is being challenged in court.
Among the money set to disappear in the new budget year is $363.6 million in federal stimulus funding used for Medicaid and $89.2 million in stimulus funds for higher education.
Demand for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled, has surged as the economy has suffered. Budget analysts predicted that over 600,000 Coloradans will rely on it by the next budget year, up from 275,000 a decade ago.
– By Colleen Slevin, AP Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)