Apr 112005
Authors: Jim Tankersley Rocky Mountain News

Monday will likely go down in the Colorado Budgetary Hall of Fame – now there's a tourist attraction – as the day the duct tape ran out.

Throughout the recent recession, state lawmakers have cobbled together budgets with one-time money, raids on cash funds and about $1 billion in program cuts.

They'll do it again on Monday, when a Senate committee takes up a $6.3 billion spending bill for fiscal year 2005-06 taped together with accounting changes, a savings plan and a clever tax cut.

Also Monday, lawmakers are expected to send voters a broader proposal – what they call a long-term fix – that figures to end the years of patchwork budgets, one way or another.

The state House and Senate are expected to pass House Bill 1194, the budgetary compromise between Gov. Bill Owens and about two-thirds of legislators, in the morning.

If voters approve it in November, then the measure would balance the budget long-term by letting the state spend an estimated $3.1 billion over five years that it otherwise would refund to taxpayers under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

Supporters say that's enough money to help hard-hit state programs, such as health care and higher education, keep up with rising costs and caseloads. It would also kick-start an estimated $1.7 billion in transportation projects.

In other words, no duct tape needed for a while.

If voters reject the measure, lawmakers say no temporary fixes will bridge the shortfall they'd face through decade's end, including more than $300 million in 2006-07.

Leaders say they'd be forced to cut state programs deeply. Among their threats: closing colleges, releasing some non-violent prisoners and kicking poor people off Medicaid.

"We've run out of things to do," said Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

Many fiscal conservatives in and out of the legislature oppose the measure and say lawmakers should balance budgets by running government more efficiently.

"This body has zero will to really do any cuts," Rep. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said on Thursday.

Voters will hear both sides for months. Meanwhile, legislators will begin debating the 2005-06 budget, which starts July 1, this week.

The budget, as described by lawmakers from both parties that drafted it, is notable for two things it doesn't do: add new programs and cut existing ones.

It proposes to increase state spending on the vast majority of programs by $365 million over 2004-05, according to legislative staff.

That's a 6 percent increase in program spending, though the general fund budget will rise only 4 percent overall because lawmakers saved some additional money from the 2004-05 budget to apply to the 2005-06 budget, said Rep. Tom Plant, D-Nederland, the budget committee's vice chairman.

More than three-quarters of the increases flow to two areas: K-12 education (which is mandated in the Colorado Constitution) and health care (much of which is mandated by the federal government).

The budget would raise the amount the state pays medical providers for the first time in three years. It restores some previously cut health care programs, including aid to the disabled and substance abuse treatment.

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