Colorado lawmakers tackle budget; crime, climate top issues

March 30, 2022 GMT

DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers this week are debating a proposed $36.4 billion state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 with increased spending on public safety, climate change and education. It’s a record sum boosted by strong revenues generated by a recovering economy.

The budget bill, set for debate in the House on Wednesday, reflects Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ pledge this year to battle rising crime rates and curb the impact of a state annual inflation rate that reached 7.9% in January. It calls for limiting, reducing or eliminating state fees ranging from motor vehicle registrations to starting businesses.

And it reflects Polis’ commitment since his 2018 election to enhancing school spending from pre-K to higher education.

Minority Republicans in both chambers worry that some $2 billion in new spending can’t be sustained in future years. They’ve called for tax relief for residents and fully replenishing a state unemployment fund that was exhausted during the height of the pandemic.

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“It’s going to be difficult moving forward to keep up with all the additions and all the growth that we’ve had this year,” said Republican Rep. Kim Ransom, a member of the Joint Budget Committee that drafted the proposal.

Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie, the committee chair, said the proposal reflects a “return to a sense of normal,” The Colorado Sun reports.

Among hundreds of other programs, the proposal would:

__ Put about $2 billion into a rainy day fund. McCluskie said previous state reserves didn’t cover more than $3 billion in pandemic-related cuts made in 2020 and 2021.

__ Spending more than $7 billion on K-12 education. The amount would slash state arrears in public education funding from $571 million to $321 million, according to McCluskie. The bill also increases higher education funding by $223 million, to $5.4 billion, with new scholarship money for low-income students, and it caps tuition hikes at most state institutions at 2%.

__ Reducing state fees for residents and businesses by $157 million, delaying a new state gasoline tax of 2 cents per gallon for two years, and offering $200 million in property tax relief.

__ Raising public safety spending by 15% to $196 million. Crime is a top priority for both major parties this midterm election year, with a number of crime-related bills working their way through the Legislature.

__ Increasing spending for the Department of Public Health and Environment from $92 million to $156 million. At least $43.5 million would address metropolitan Denver’s chronically poor air quality by creating new emissions monitoring programs, Axios Denver reports.

The House debates the plan this week before forwarding it to the Senate. Lawmakers are required to pass a balanced budget each session.