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Colorado Budget Nears Final Lap With Excitement

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(credit: ThinkStock)

(credit: ThinkStock)

DENVER (AP) — Colorado senators turned a final budget vote Thursday into a pep rally of sorts as lawmakers from both parties heaped praise on the $7.4 billion spending plan for next year.

The 30-5 Senate vote came after a nearly unanimous vote in the House. An improving economy has put more sales taxes and income taxes in state coffers, allowing lawmakers to reverse years of painful budget cutting.

Though budget writers still must rectify small differences before sending a final budget to the governor, the winners in the spending plan are clear. Seniors will see a revived property tax cut. Public schools aren’t getting a cut — the first time since next year’s seniors were in middle school.

Lawmakers also had enough money to stop raiding severance taxes paid by mining and drilling companies. Much of that money is designated for local governments, but through the recession state lawmakers have relied on severance taxes to balance the books. As a result, local communities lost upward of $50 million a year they could have used to repair sidewalks and local roads.

Senators from both parties took turn congratulating themselves as they enter the final lap on their biggest task — balancing the state budget.

“This day proves that we can do this,” proclaimed Senate Republican Leader Bill Cadman.

His frequent foil, Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer, joined in, heaping praise on legislative budget writers who spend long hours tallying the general fund budget.

Shaffer, who is running for Congress, even called Colorado’s divided Legislature “an example for the entire United States.”

There’s a certain amount of self-congratulation after every budget debate. But this year, lawmakers have been in a jovial mood throughout, helped by rebounding tax revenues. Even a frequent critic, Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, said he was moved to vote for the budget this year.

“What I see as the key element is, we’re living within our means,” Lundberg said.

Other highlights in the budget include 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.

The budget isn’t all highlights, of course. Lawmakers had to set aside more than $20 million to again try to repair the state’s troubled benefits-management computer system. Democratic Sen. Joyce Foster, the lone voice of criticism during Thursday’s budget debate, pointed out that Colorado has had to spend some $500 million since 1997 on computer management for benefits such as food stamps.

She also chastised colleagues for portraying the state budget picture as so rosy. She said some of the seniors getting the property tax break don’t need it, while lawmakers could have spent that money on schools or safety net programs for the poorest.

“These dollars are being spent in very ridiculous ways,” said Foster, who went on to vote for the budget anyway.

As they do every year, some in the House and Senate successfully tacked on small changes to the overall plan. This year, for example, a Democratic senator steered through an amendment to add more oil and gas well inspectors, while House Republicans moved some money from the Department of Corrections toward funding full-day kindergarten.

However, the conflicting amendments represent a small fraction of the overall spending plan. The full budget tops $19 billion, though most of that is money lawmakers can’t control. The smaller “general fund” under legislative control is $7.4 billion for the fiscal year beginning in July.

By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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