DENVER (AP) – Lawmakers are deadlocked over whether to cut spending at Colorado state agencies, a move Democrats and the governor’s office warn will prompt layoffs in what has become the latest flashpoint in budget negotiations.
Budget writers are getting closer to finalizing the budget, and removed a big obstacle earlier this week when they said they would not pursue eliminating a nearly $100 million property tax break for some seniors. Many believed that would be the issue to gridlock the budget because Republicans wanted the keep the tax break, while Democrats said the state couldn’t afford it.
Now the improving revenue picture that allowed lawmakers to take the tax break off the table is also making Democrats revisit a vote last month to cut 2 percent across all state departments, a decision members of the party say was made when the budget outlook was dire.
“I cannot see why we would lay people off in a recovering economy,” said Democratic Sen. Mary Hodge, a member of the Joint Budget Committee. Republicans are skeptical the cut will trigger mass layoffs.
The proposal to cut state departments 2 percent – a savings of about $20 million in the general fund – was part of a compromise to increase the state’s contribution to employees’ health, life and dental benefits by about $15.8 million. That’s money employees would otherwise pay for themselves because of rising costs. Taken together, savings for the state would be about $4 million.
The JBC approved the deal unanimously.
“We were in a very different place. We didn’t know that we had money,” Hodge said.
Earlier this week, lawmakers learned they had about $200 million to spare in the budget, based on increasing tax receipts and money left over after what they’d budgeted so far.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s economists warn that cutting state departments by 2 percent could lead to anywhere from 450 to 500 eliminated jobs. They would include jobs at Colorado mental hospitals, adult and youth prisons, the State Patrol, and driver’s license offices.
On Monday, the JBC considered removing the 2 percent reduction, but the committee deadlocked 3-3 with Democrats voting to eliminate the cut and Republicans voting to keep it. Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman said lawmakers are still negotiating. The budget is expected to be introduced in the House next week.
Scott Wasserman, the executive director of the state workers’ union Colorado WINS, said lawmakers are putting employees who have not had a raise in years in a tough spot.
“We shouldn’t be saying to people, ‘We want to reduce your health care costs. But we’re going to have to lay you off to do it,'” he said.
Bill Ortiz Jr., a clinical security officer at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, said residents notice if there’s layoffs.
“We do provide services, whether we’re plowing roads or taking care of the mentally ill,” said Ortiz, 48. “If we cut these services, both sides of the aisle will be complaining.”
Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, the chair of the committee, said the budget reduction would come from “vacancy savings,” jobs that are either vacant or positions where an older worker has left and been replaced with a lower-paid employee. She questions whether the department cuts would lead to layoffs.
“It’s one of those things that hasn’t been proven, but it’s become the latest political football definitely,” she said.
Democratic House Leader Mark Ferrandino said the vacancy savings Republicans are referring to don’t exist because departments have already been repeatedly cut in recent years.
“I think the departments are at a place where they don’t really have any more vacancy savings within it,” he said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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