Longbill

Gov. Jared Polis started off the week of bill signings by putting his name on Senate Bill 205, the state budget for 2021-22, joined by a lot of happier faces from the Joint Budget Committee than a year ago.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, the JBC vice-chair, noted the difference. There were more than a few tears in crafting the current year budget, she said during the signing ceremony, which cut 25% of the discretionary dollars from the general fund, nearly $3.5 billion. 

But a faster recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic has meant restoring almost everything cut a year ago.

The $34.1 billion state budget that begins on July 1 is $4 billion higher than the current year budget. 

"This is the best long bill ever," said a smiling Polis. He noted the financial swings the state has experienced in the past year, which he called the "hardest it's ever been because of the changing numbers and the enormous waves." 

The swings have been so dramatic, now in the other direction, that the JBC was able to set aside 13.4%, or $1.74 billion of the general fund for the statutory reserve, which has acted as the state's rainy day fund, and which was spent down in just three months last year. Polis also signed that bill into law on Monday. 

"It's always easy to celebrate in good times, but if we learned everything over the last year, we need to always prepare for the tough times, especially around economic uncertainty," Polis said. "I'm proud to be signing a bill that will safeguard Colorado's fiscal future."

Among the cuts restored in the budget: $572 million that ballooned the state's debt to K-12 education, known as the budget stabilization factor. Restoring those funds, plus a few other changes, cuts the debt in half. Higher ed, which saw a 58% cut in its general fund, also got that money back in the 2021-22 budget, plus some additional funding to help low-income students and students of color. 

The state's lengthy waiting list for services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities also was slashed in the upcoming fiscal year's budget. 

The long bill, as it's known, also set aside $800 million in one-time-only dollars to help Coloradans recover from the pandemic recession.

"This is one of the best budgets we've produced," said JBC Chair Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. "What a difference a year makes!"

He added that the next budget sets the state onto a path toward a more fiscally sustainable future.

McCluskie noted the budget also plans for this summer's wildfire season, with investments in forest health, watershed restoration, and being ready for wildfire response. "That may be part of Colorado's future, not only this year, but in years to come," she said.

Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, the JBC's senior member, in noting Monday's ceremony was his seventh as a JBC member, pointed to three factors that made this year's budget-crafting a success: bipartisanship among the JBC members (although Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Littleton, the House GOP member, did not attend and did not sign onto the bill as a co-sponsor). 

The JBC has a long history, Rankin said, of putting aside partisanship. "There's never been a time where that was more important than the last two budgets and believe me,  I can't thank my colleagues from majority party enough."

The second factor was the historic nature of the past two years, which meant the JBC members started working on Monday's budget last November, and didn't shut down when the rest of the General Assembly went on a month-long recess.

"We went from the historic worst budget in the history of Colorado... to the historically largest or most ample budget with historic reserves that we're able to put aside."

The third factor was the JBC staff, many of whom have worked for the JBC for decades. 

But the work isn't over, Rankin said; in the months to come lawmakers will have to decide how to spend $3.8 billion coming from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan.

"The task ahead of us now is almost as hard," Rankin said.

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, joined the committee for the first time in the 2021 session, and thanked her JBC colleagues for getting her up to speed. She also thanked them for putting equity in the forefront.

"Equity is no longer just a tagline for the state of Colorado. It's one that we see reflected in every single bill and line item in our budget," Herod said.

The next year's budget also sets into play a "quiet revolution," according to Lauren Larson, director of the governor's office of state planning and budgeting: it has a multi-year outlook, as reflected by prepaying liabilities that will protect services into the future. 

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