DENVER (AP) – Gov. John Hickenlooper signed next year’s budget for Colorado on Monday, a spending plan that includes more funding for public schools, pay raises for state workers, and money to expand mental health services.
Improving tax receipts allowed state lawmakers to fund areas of the budget they had cut during the recession, including public schools and colleges.
Still, the governor and budget writers have remained cautious, noting that a lot of the revenue growth is driven by one-time money, like taxes on stock sales. Hickenlooper has also repeatedly noted that state revenue is still about $1 billion lower than 2007 when adjusted for inflation and population growth.
“But we are beginning to come back, and beginning to catch up in a number of places,” Hickenlooper said.
Per-pupil spending at public schools will increase by $172 next year. Currently, per-pupil spending is about $6,500. Colleges are also getting about $31 million more in funding next year.
State employees will also get a pay increase of 2 percent — the first in four years. And lawmakers are using $2.8 million to pay victims of last year’s Lower North Fork Fire, which grew out of a state prescribed burn.
General fund expenditures, which lawmakers control, were expected to be about $8.2 billion next year, compared with $7.6 billion in the current budget year. The state’s total budget, which includes federal money and cash funds, would be about $20.5 billion.
The biggest areas of general fund spending would continue to be K-12 schools, at about $3.1 billion, and the department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which administers Medicaid, at nearly $2.1 billion.
Lawmakers are also paying down $140 million in state debt for police and firefighter pensions, and adding $30 million for water storage projects in rural Colorado.
“We’re in the happy position of no longer having to cut programs,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, one of six budget writers.
In response to last summer’s attack at a suburban Denver movie theater, Hickenlooper and state health officials called for an expansion of the state’s mental health services. Attorneys for the suspect in the shooting maintain he is mentally ill.
The budget includes nearly $20 million to establish a statewide mental health crisis response system, walk-in help centers and 24-hour phone hotlines.
The state’s spending plan also raises Colorado’s general fund budget reserve to 5 percent from the current 4 percent. It’ll be an increase of $80 million.
The budget received little support from Republicans this year, compared to the many yes votes of the previous two years, when the GOP controlled the House and Democrats led the Senate. This year, with Democrats in control of both chambers, the budget passed without GOP support in the Senate and six Republicans voting for it in the House.
Many of the Republicans who voted no expressed concern that spending was growing too fast, while others criticized Democrats for passing new gun restrictions this year as part of the reason for opposing the spending plan.
By IVAN MORENO, Associated Press
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