DENVER (AP) – Democrats accused Republicans of being hardhearted on Monday for voting to cut off subsidized breakfasts for needy children.

Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee that sets state spending priorities defended their votes, saying the Department of Education failed to demonstrate a need for the money.

Last week, they voted against spending an additional $124,229 to subsidize the Start Smart Nutrition Program at the end of this school year.

It was a deadlocked, party-line vote, with three Democrats voting to spend the money and three Republicans voting against it. The decision is not final.

Under the committee vote, breakfast will still be served. However, low-income students will be charged 30 cents a meal after March, when current funding runs out.

“These are the working poor, parents who aren’t poor enough for their children to qualify for free lunches because they make too much money, yet can’t afford to pay for school breakfasts for their children,” Democratic House Minority Leader Sal Pace said.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, said the Department of Education failed to justify the spending. She said lawmakers have a constitutional duty to balance the state budget.

Lawmakers are trying to cover a $300 million shortfall this year, and they will have to cut an additional $1.1 billion next year.

The state currently has about $250,000 in a cash fund that could be used for the program, but Republicans said that money is needed to balance the budget this year.

“We don’t have the money,” Gerou said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t care about feeding children, and it doesn’t mean we don’t understand the impacts. I’m not going to spend money that we haven’t seen a need for.”

Gerou, who serves on the Joint Budget Committee, said the panel might vote to authorize the spending if the department can justify the need.

Spokesman Mark Stevens said the Department of Education filed a request for the additional funding with the governor’s office, but it apparently wasn’t passed on to lawmakers. The governor’s office said it was looking into the issue.

Watch a video clip of what Kathy Underhill from Hunger Free Colorado has to say:

The state provides about 2.3 million breakfasts a year to about 56,000 public school students who qualify for reduced breakfasts that require them to pay 30 cents a meal. Another 271,000 pupils qualify for free lunches and are not affected by the decision.

Kathy Underhill, director of the Hunger Free Colorado campaign, said 30 cents might not seem like a large amount to Republican lawmakers, but it has a huge impact on families struggling to pay the bills.

She said the move will have little impact on the current $18.1 billion state budget.

– By Steven K. Paulson, AP Writer

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