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Colorado Senate Gives Initial OK To Budget

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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, and the Democrat-led Senate gave an initial OK to next year’s spending plan on Wednesday.

But don’t expect both parties to find much agreement on next year’s budget as Republicans decry new gun restrictions and criticize what they say is too much spending.

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.

Republicans also argued spending is growing too much and wanted across-the-board cuts to state departments.

“We need to live within our means just like everybody else,” said Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, who proposed the cuts but did not get enough support.

The Senate gave initial approval to the budget on an unrecorded voice vote 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 beging 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 considered about 30 amendments to the budget, most of which failed or where withdrawn. 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 defund the state’s background check program for firearm sales, and instead use only the federal program.

Lawmakers did agree on amendments to add $2.8 million to pay negligence claims for last year’s Lower North Fork Fire, which grew from a state prescribed burn. They also approved $500,000 for youth hunting and fishing programs in the Department of Natural Resources.

It’s unclear whether those amendments will ultimately survive the budget process.

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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