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Colorado Senate Begins Budget Debate

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(credit: ThinkStock)

(credit: ThinkStock)

DENVER (AP) – The improving economy is giving Colorado lawmakers the power to restore budget cuts from recent years. But don’t expect both parties to find much agreement on next year’s spending plan as the Senate begins debating the budget Wednesday – and Republicans are partly blaming a bitter battle over gun restrictions.

Democrats who control the Senate are highlighting the additional funding that’s going to public schools and colleges next year, areas of the budget that have suffered deep cuts during the economic downturn.

But Republicans say they won’t be on board with the spending package, indicating their displeasure with Democratic legislation this year that expanded background checks on firearm sales and limited the size of ammunition magazines.

“We have set public policies in this state which my caucus believes are of dubious legality, and dubious constitutionality,” said Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, one of the GOP budget writers, who will vote no on the budget. His opposition is unusual because budget writers from both parties usually band together to support the spending plan they’ve spent several months working on.

This year, Democrats control the House and the Senate. Last year, with Democrats in charge of the Senate and Republicans the House, only a handful of the 100 lawmakers voted “no” on the budget. Lambert’s comments strongly indicated support would not be the same.

Still, the budget is expected to get initial approval Wednesday after hours of debate. A final vote expected Thursday will send it to the House.

General fund expenditures, which lawmakers control, are expected to be about $8.2 billion next year, compared to $7.6 billion in the current budget year. The state’s total budget, which includes federal money and cash funds, is about $20.5 billion.

“As you know, our economy is in recovery. State tax revenues are returning to our general fund,” said Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, another budget writer. He said lawmakers can begin the process of restoring cuts to schools, which will see more than $100 million in additional funding. Colleges are getting nearly $30 million more to their budgets.

Steadman also highlighted about $30 million more to strengthen the state’s mental health services, and money for construction projects at colleges and state buildings. State employees are also getting pay raises for the first time in five years, a proposal that Republicans are expected to fight.

The annual budget debate gives lawmakers from each party the opportunity to lobby for pet projects and ideas that stand little chance of making it into the final budget. Lawmakers will consider more than 30 amendments to the budget. For example:

- A Democratic proposal to add $2 million to a state fund that provides incentives for film production.

- Democrats want a footnote in the budget that tells the Colorado Attorney General’s Office that it can’t use any state money to file briefs in support of the gay marriage arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Colorado’s Republican Attorney General John Suthers opposes same-sex marriage.

- A Republican amendment to get rid of the state’s background check program for firearm sales, and instead use only the federal program.

- A Republican proposal to cut departments across-the-board by 5 percent.

“We need to live within our means just like everybody else,” said Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, who is proposing the amendment.

- By IVAN MORENO, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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