Schools survive Colorado’s midyear spending cuts

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Schools are safe but local governments are not under a midyear spending plan that sparked the first detailed budget debate of the year Friday in Colorado’s Legislature.

After months of talking about the painful cuts they would make to Colorado’s pocketbook to balance the budget, the Senate started the nitty-gritty work of combing through the state’s budget – and immediately started arguing about what to cut.

The result was nearly $217 in general-find reductions.

Democrats crowed that the spending adjustment, an annual undertaking to keep state finances in order through the end of the fiscal year this summer, didn’t cut money from K-12 or higher education.

But Republicans complained that Democrats in charge of the Senate merely skimmed money from mining and drilling taxes that otherwise could have gone to local governments for roads, sewers and other local improvements.

Both sides agreed that the midyear cuts are a mere shadow of the monster cuts awaiting lawmakers in a few weeks when they undertake next year’s budget, in which lawmakers predict they’ll have to slice more than $1 billion to balance the books.

But lawmakers are sharpening their budget knives with the midyear plan. They found plenty to argue about.

Republicans complained that the spending plan unfairly relies on some $60 million in taxes from mining and drilling, called severance taxes. The state skimmed the money from a fund that would otherwise have passed the $60 million to local government for projects such as roads and sewers.

Democrats called it a “transfer” and pointed out that severance taxes have been tapped before to balance the budget. Republicans had a different name for it.

“It’s a new name for legalized theft,” complained Republican Sen. Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs.

Local governments aren’t the only ones being told to pass over cash to balance the budget. The spending plan also dips into cash funds designated for everything from tourism promotion to drug treatment and domestic abuse prevention.

Schools weren’t cut, but all other state agencies would have to trim 1 percent, possibly through cutting staff or not filling jobs.

Democrats also pushed through two cuts aimed at Republican officials. The Senate swiped $4 million from a surplus in the office of Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

“All of us are going to have to do more with less,” Senate Democratic Leader John Morse said.

Republicans complained the cut was a political attack aimed at Gessler. “I think he should lock his checkbook up and hide from us,” Cadman said.

And a few Republicans were rolling their eyes when Democrats cut $25,000 from the office of Republican Attorney General John Suthers. The money would have paid for Colorado to sign on to a Florida water lawsuit Democrats say isn’t relevant here. Republicans called it a vindictive cut that had little to do with the Florida case but was meant to chastise Suthers for joining lawsuits unpopular with the left, especially a multistate lawsuit challenging the health care overhaul.

“Let’s not take cheap shots and pretend that it costs a lot of money” to join an existing lawsuit, Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell said.

A few things on the chopping block were saved Friday. Most notable was a vote by the full Senate to restore some $124,000 to pay for school breakfasts for needy students through the Department of Education’s Start Smart Nutrition Program. Senators also decided against cutting almost $746,000 in money designated for bonuses for school guidance counselors.

The Senate must vote on the midyear spending plan one more time before it heads to the Republican House. However, the midyear plan will be quickly replaced by a much bigger spending debate.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is scheduled to propose his spending plan for next fiscal year to legislative budget-writers Tuesday, giving lawmakers their first detailed look at what the new governor intends to cut in order to balance the larger budget.