BY FREDA MIKLIN
Committee of the Colorado Legislature has already begun its work, with two meetings this week and 15 more scheduled between December 2 and December 21. The 2023 JBC is responsible for proposing the state budget for FY2024, which runs from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.
Representing the Democrats on the JBC are Chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, Vice-Chair Rep. Shannon Bird of Westminster, and Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver. Representing the GOP on the JBC are Sens. Bob Rankin of Carbondale and Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, and Rep. Rod Bockenfeld of Watkins. Rankin is the longest serving member of the JBC. Zenzinger was a member of the JBC in 2019 and 2020. Bird, Bridges, Bockenfeld and Sirota are new to the JBC this year.
Gov. Polis submitted a preliminary budget on November 1, which the JBC will use to begin their process. In his budget message, Polis said, “In partnership with the legislature and the voters of Colorado, we delivered real results by passing free full-day kindergarten and universal preschool. We saved people money on healthcare and are on track to reach 100% renewable energy by 2040. We’ve reduced property taxes by over $1 billion, permanently reduced the income tax, and closed tax loopholes to put more money into the pockets of hardworking Coloradans. We made it nearly free to start a business in our State and got Coloradans their $750 and $1,500 Colorado Cash Back checks ahead of schedule when they needed it most. We made historic investments in critical issues like housing, workforce development, mental and behavioral health, transportation, water, public safety, and more.”
That was prior to the election, during which the state’s voters approved several ballot amendments that will impact the budget, including reducing the state income tax from 4.55% to 4.40%, increasing state income taxes by $100 million on those earning over $300,000 to pay for free school lunches for all public schoolchildren, and dedicating existing state revenue to pay for affordable housing programs, which will reduce TABOR refunds.
The governor’s proposed FY 2023-24 budget “requests $42.7 billion in Total Funds and $16.7 billion in General Fund,” representing an “operating increase of 3.5% in Total Funds and 7% in General Fund above FY 2022-23 enacted levels.” The total increase in the budget from FY 2022-2023 is $6 billion.
Aspects of the governor’s proposal include, “a 9.0% per pupil increase in Total Program,” which translates to $704 million, or increased per-pupil funding of an average of $861.” It also includes $325 million to implement free universal pre-school for four-year-olds, a new statewide program that begins in August 2023.
Polis proposes limiting tuition increases for in-state students attending Colorado’s colleges and universities to 4%, which he points out is half the rate of inflation. He also proposes increasing funding for higher education by $86 million, over and above any money from tuition increases.
The budget also contains $42.1 million for public safety, including $12.6 million “to prevent and prosecute auto theft,” including “increased resources for technology solutions, law enforcement task forces focused on auto theft, and support for District Attorneys in communities with high rates of auto theft,” along with “$4.5 million to support local law enforcement to recruit and retain officers.”
Attacking the problem from another angle, the $42.1 million also includes, “$5.0M ongoing to expand the existing network of sober recovery homes run by community providers to support offender re-entry and reduce recidivism,” and “$4.5M in grant funding to community organizations for local public safety solutions (to) help organizations engage in crime reduction and intervention strategies such as co-responder programs, violence interrupter programs, early intervention teams, restorative justice services, and other research-informed crime prevention strategies.”
Focusing on the fentanyl epidemic, also included is “$5.4M to bolster our State’s investigative capacity (by) creating two additional Special Investigations Units within the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI) with the flexibility and expertise to help jurisdictions handle…challenges like fentanyl (as well as the) expansion of a toxicology lab with state-of-the-art equipment.”
The budget also proposes “adding $22.8 million for behavioral health services,” including $5.5 million for Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act services. These funds will prevent a waitlist for behavioral health services and prevent children from entering the foster care system.”
A Wildfire Package totaling $38.3 million, part of Polis’ proposed budget, includes: “$13.8M for aerial resources to fight large wildfires from above and increased support for our state firefighters, $7.2M to support and empower local fire mitigation and suppression, (which) includes funding to expand training for local firefighters, and $7.0M for landscape mitigation and related workforce development through the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program.”
To address water issues, exacerbated by longstanding drought conditions combined with the state’s increasing population, the governor’s budget proposes spending of, “$17.6 million for the Colorado Water Plan grant program to support partners advancing high-priority water projects across the state and to provide matching funds for federal grant opportunities,” to be funded by $12.6 million from sports betting revenues and $5 million from the state’s General Fund.
On November 22, Polis met with the new JBC and answered their questions on a host of subjects, including how to increase housing around the state, the nuances of K-12 education funding, competing interests in the Colorado River, and how the state will continue programs that were implemented with federal money that was available as a result of the pandemic.