On bud­get, both sides ex­ag­ger­ate

The Denver Post - - NEWS -

It’s lit­tle won­der that Coloradans don’t know who to be­lieve about the state’s fi­nan­cial out­look head­ing into 2017.

House Repub­li­can Leader Pa­trick Neville said of the eco­nomic fore­cast re­leased Tues­day that “gen­eral fund rev­enue con­tin­ues to in­crease and we have the funds to ad­dress Colorado’s most press­ing needs.”

The Demo­cratic chair of the state’s bud­get com­mit­tee, Rep. Mil­lie Ham­ner, quipped that “the econ­omy is do­ing well enough that we’re go­ing to have to cut your schools.”

We’d say nei­ther as­sess­ment is com­pletely ac­cu­rate and both mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tions fuel the flames head­ing into an­other leg­isla­tive year where Repub­li­cans hold the Se­nate and Democrats hold the House and a bud­get com­pro­mise is needed be­tween the two.

Neville is right that the state’s gen­eral fund bud­get is pro­jected to grow by 4.6 per­cent, or al­most $500 mil­lion, for fis­cal year 2017-18.

But Ham­ner is also right that when the econ­omy is do­ing well, the state doesn’t reap all of the ben­e­fits. Of that $500 mil­lion in­crease, more than half — $279.4 mil­lion — will be re­turned to tax­pay­ers be­cause of the rev­enue cap put in place by the Tax­payer’s Bill of Rights.

That leaves about a $200 mil­lion in­crease in state rev­enue for the gen­eral fund.

Neville says that’s enough. Ham­ner says it isn’t.

So what should the av­er­age tax­payer be­lieve? Is the state strapped for cash or is it sim­ply strug­gling from mis­placed pri­or­i­ties?

Well, it will take ap­prox­i­mately $169 mil­lion of that $200 mil­lion to re­turn the state’s rainy-day fund to the de­sir­able 6.5 per­cent mark af­ter law­mak­ers use the cash fund to close out the cur­rent fis­cal year in the black.

Neville is dream­ing if he thinks there’s enough growth in the gen­eral fund rev­enue to cover, oh, let’s say the bil­lions of dol­lars in trans­porta­tion needs that Repub­li­cans love to talk about when list­ing their pri­or­i­ties.

But will schools face bud­get cuts, as Ham­ner says? Def­i­nitely not. Amend­ment 23 man­dates that the K-12 ed­u­ca­tion bud­get will in­crease by at least $243.5 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2017-18.

That’s cer­tainly not a cut, no mat­ter how you try to spin the growing neg­a­tive fac­tor (what law­mak­ers would owe schools un­der Amend­ment 23 if ev­ery­one was be­ing com­pletely hon­est about the voter-ap­proved man­dated spend­ing for­mula).

So what to make of all this pre­ses­sion po­lit­i­cal wran­gling?

All law­mak­ers would like to spend more money than the state is al­lowed to keep un­der TA­BOR — even the most hard-line fis­cal con­ser­va­tives have fund­ing pri­or­i­ties that aren’t be­ing met.

The nice thing about Colorado is that, his­tor­i­cally, both sides have done well to come to­gether to solve the rid­dle that is our com­pli­cated bud­get. The bi­par­ti­san Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee serves the state well, and we sup­port the gov­er­nor’s pro­posed bud­get for fis­cal year 2017-18 that uses a clever ac­count­ing tool to avoid TA­BOR re­funds and al­low the state to re­tain the full $500 mil­lion in rev­enue growth.

Ev­ery­one could do with a lit­tle less hy­per­bole, though, as law­mak­ers pre­pare to again tackle the long-term ques­tion of TA­BOR re­straints on spend­ing. Both sides can give a lit­tle in this de­bate with the truth: money is tight and spend­ing is growing.

Vot­ers will re­ward the hon­esty if they’re asked to con­sider ad­just­ments to TA­BOR in the fu­ture.

Ev­ery­one in the Colorado leg­is­la­ture could do with a lit­tle less hy­per­bole as they tackle the long-term ques­tion of TA­BOR re­straints on spend­ing. Post file

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