Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday presented his first state budget request to the members of the Joint Budget Committee, outlining his priorities on increasing the state’s reserve, putting more money into reducing the state’s debt to K-12 and boosting funding for higher education.
But JBC members on both sides of the aisle appear to have somewhat different priorities, or indicated that Polis’ budget submission doesn’t provide enough for those priorities.
Polis pointed out that the funding increase for this year’s budget, at 6.2%, was exceptional, and that the 2.9% next year is in line with inflation.
“There’s not a lot of free money” available, he said.
Among Polis’ priorities: putting more dollars into the state’s general fund reserve, a sort of “rainy day” fund that could be tapped if and when the state hits an economic downturn.
The state’s 7.25% reserve is below the national average and well below the 16% economists and other financial organizations say should be in a reserve, representing enough money to cover two months of state operations. Polis’ proposal would take the reserve to 7.5% to help prepare the state for the economic downturn.
Polis issued an amended budget request that would add $5 million for struggling schools and $10 million for capital improvements for the state’s public colleges and universities.
He also announced he was amending his budget submission to put more money into reducing the Budget Stabilization Factor, the debt to K-12 schools that was started during the recession a decade ago.
That debt reached a high of $1 billion in 2010-11. With the $52 million (an increase of $12 million from his original proposal), the debt would drop down to about $520 million.
Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, had concerns.
“We have a real problem paying teachers and a teacher recruitment and retention problem,” she said.
More than half of Colorado schools are on a four-day school week, more than any state in the country, Zenzinger said.
“Those kinds of concerns really bother me ... the best way to address that is through the Budget Stabilization Factor,” she said.
An economic downturn would hit schools even worse, she said.
She pointed out that last year lawmakers provided a $102 million buydown of the Budget Stabilization Factor, “rather than funding an initiative here partially or a grant program there, (or) another pilot program, we need to be more precise in channeling our resources toward the budget stabilization factor and funding our schools.”
The revised budget request includes an additional $55 million for transportation.