DENVER (AP) — The Colorado House approved a $7.4 billion spending plan Thursday, turning what many believed would be an acrimonious process into an unusually jovial time as they kept funding for schoolchildren at the same level as last year and returned a property tax break for seniors.
The Republican-controlled House approved the bill on a nearly unanimous vote, with only one lawmaker out of 65 opposing. In past years, it would not be surprising to have a couple of dozen lawmakers voting no on the budget.
The plan now heads to the Senate, which could debate it next week.
After the vote, Republican Rep. Mark Waller, the party’s third-ranking lawmaker in the House, walked over to Democratic Rep. Claire Levy and gave her a fist bump. “I just want to say congratulations on the budget,” he said, adding that he’d work with her on executing the knuckle-to-knuckle handshake in his style.
The budget includes a retooling of the governor’s energy office, $3 million to increase tax incentives for film production, and the closure of a solitary confinement prison in southern Colorado.
An improving economy squelched debate on what appeared to be tough choices, most notably a nearly $100 tax exemption for homeowners 65 and older who have lived in their houses for at least 10 years. Schools also don’t face cuts, unlike recent years, but the funding per student is still about $600 lower than it was in 2009. The average funding per student is about $6,400. Funding for K-12 is the single largest portion of the general fund budget at about $3 billion.
Levy, a member of the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee, said having more tax revenues made it easier to settle the budget.
“There was less disagreement, and the debate was less acrimonious,” she said.
Also, she said, making for less tension, lawmakers had fewer pots of money to fight over. For example, there was about $10 million for private prisons that Democrats unsuccessfully tried to shift to childhood literacy programs during seven hours of debate Wednesday evening. Lawmakers also tried unsuccessfully to fund programs by taking from a $13 million slice of money from the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund, used for capital development projects.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said having more tax revenue doesn’t necessarily simplify the budget process.
“From our perspective, a good budget just isn’t about spending. A good budget is about prioritization and being respectful of taxpayers,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, lawmakers appeared on a collision course over the senior property tax exemption. But it didn’t come up for discussion because it’s in the state constitution and lawmakers would have had to propose a bill to eliminate it, as both parties did in previous years.
Republicans argued the state should keep it, but the governor’s office and Democrats said the state couldn’t afford it. The debate seemed likely to trigger fireworks. When it became clear there was enough funding for the exemption to remain, Democrats backed off — although they still said the tax break should be shifted elsewhere.
“I continue to believe that we could not afford the senior property tax exemption,” Levy said, noting that more money should’ve gone to schools.
Public colleges are also faring better this year. They’re facing a cut of just under $6 million, after losing nearly $200 million since 2009.
Overall, the bulk of the increases in general fund spending is going to K-12 education, the senior property tax, and federally mandated Medicaid spending.
Spending on prisons makes up nearly 9 percent of the budget, and lawmakers have begun to question whether that’s too much, given a declining inmate population. As a companion to the budget, House lawmakers approved $350,000 to try to find savings in the Department of Corrections’ use of private and state prison beds.
By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)