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Colorado governor's proposed 2018 budget doesn't lay clear path to more road money

November 1, 2017 Updated: November 2, 2017 at 7:39 am
photo - Colorado State Capitol Building
Colorado State Capitol Building 

On paper, Gov. John Hickenlooper touts an 11 percent increase in transportation funding from legislation that passed last session, but the draft of his next budget request released to reporters Wednesday doesn't go farther than money lawmakers already have approved.

Republicans want to see more "skin in the game" from the state budget before asking voters for a tax increase.

They won't get that from the governor's budget proposal, however.

In May, the bipartisan Senate Bill 267 moved a hospital provider fee out from under the state spending cap to free up money for rural hospitals, transportation, transit and other needs.

The state sold $2 billion in bonds, some of which adds money to transportation, accounting for $500 million increase for transportation next year, and $500 million the next.

And 35 percent of that money goes to rural counties and transit, siphoning away help to resolve traffic jams and safety issues on Interstates 70 and 25, let alone preparing for the state's projected growth in the next two decades.

As Colorado faces $20 billion in needs over the next 20 years, it will be up to legislators or voters to decide where the additional money comes from.

Democrats want to ask voters for a tax increase on next year's ballot, but Republicans, who control the state Senate, won't allow it, arguing that the state's budget grows every year, and some of that money could pay the freight for transportation needs.

The governor's office is asking for the overall state budget to grow by $1.9 billion next year to $30.5 billion, an increase of 3.7 percent.

"Significant progress was made last year to address critical needs in Colorado," the governor said in a statement about his request, which he formally will make to the legislature's Joint Budget Committee this month.

"This new budget supports education and public safety needs across the state. But history tells us to be ready for when times are not as good. By building up reserves and shoring our pension plan, the proposal meets the needs of today and provides buffer for tomorrow."

Lawmakers ultimately write and approve the budget, then send it to Hickenlooper for his approval.

Hickenlooper's request will ask for increases to:

- Department of Corrections, $57.8 million, an increase of 7.5 percent.

- K-12 education, $84.6 million, an increase of 2.1 percent.

- Higher education, $86.9 million, an increase of 9.7 percent.

- Public safety and the courts, $87.3 million, or an increase of 6.2 percent

- Health care policy and financing, $98.2 million, an increase of 3.5 percent.

- The Department of Human Services, $60.2 million, an increase of 6.9 percent.

- General Fund reserve infusion of $154.6 million.

Budget director Henry Sobanet said the governor hopes to build the state's reserves to 7 percent of spending, up from 6.5 percent this year, to prepare for economic bad times or an unforeseen disaster.

He said the state was able to cover $100 million in expenses from the 2013 floods on the Front Range, when it had a 4 percent reserve, without cutting state services.

Moody's Analytics issued a nationwide report this month that said Colorado is among the worst in the nation at setting aside money in its budget for downturns. Analysts recommended the state build up a 15.1 percent reserve.

"Am I expecting a recession? Absolutely," Sobanet said Wednesday. "The problem is I can't tell you when it's going to happen, so if we're not saving money during an upswing, the next downturn is going to be all that much worse."

The budget proposal also prescribes $94.7 million to state employees' compensation package, a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise, but it also asks state employees to pay 2 percent more into their own Public Employees Retirement Association plan starting in 2019.

The governor's budget would take effect on July 1 next year if the legislature were to adopt it.

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