With nerves over a possible recession in 2023 looming, Gov. Jared Polis said the budget proposal he submitted Tuesday to a panel of legislators will have little room for new programs, while investing in key areas, such as education and public safety.
The governor's proposed total spending will reach a record $42.7 billion in total funds, counting money from federal dollars, general funds from tax collections and cash. Of that total, $16.7 billion will come from the general fund.
If approved by legislators, total spending will be more than $6 billion higher than the 2022-23 state budget of $36.4 billion that Polis signed last May, and the 2023-24 budget will include a 15% reserve, the state's rainy day fund for emergencies.
Polis' budget proposes a public safety package totaling $42.1 million, funding that he said includes a "multifaceted approach" to crime. Notably, it includes $12.6M over two years to "prevent and prosecute auto theft."
"Like the rest of the nation, Colorado has seen an increase in crime during the social and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. As we turn the page on the pandemic, my administration is making bold new investments to support local law enforcement, address novel safety concerns as they arise, and support the services Coloradans need to live healthy, productive lives," the governor said in his budget proposal.
Polis' budget recommendations include $5.539 billion in state funds for K-12 education, including a record 9% increase in per pupil spending.
His budget recommends more for paying down of the "budget stabilization" factor, the debt to K-12 that began during the Great Recession. It would direct $250 million to the BS factor, lowering it to $321 million from its high point of $1.2 billion just three years ago.
Polis also proposes school safety investments, totaling $8.4 million, including a new state Office of School Safety, which he called a one-stop shop for resources and funding for school districts. The new office, if approved, would be at least the 13th added by the Polis administration since 2019.
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His budget also includes capping public college tuition increases at 4%, the biggest rate increase in four years, although Polis claimed the hike would be less than half the rate of inflation. The governor recommended an $86 million additional investment in general fund dollars for higher education.
Most of the election-year fee reductions – part of the governor's promise to save Coloradans money amidst soaring inflation – will go away in the next budget cycle, which will result in hikes in gas taxes.
However, Polis said he is "open" to discussing an extension of those hikes with the General Assembly, depending, in part, on where the price of gas heads in the coming months.
Polis also plans a second year of the free transit rides in August, when the state experiences the highest ozone pollution. State data show the program increased ridership for RTD and other transit agencies around the state.
In the area of workforce development and housing, Polis proposes $15 million for statewide innovative and affordable housing projects through the state office of Public-Private Partnerships. Polis pointed to a shovel-ready project in the Vail Valley, which would build 80 affordable workforce housing units on land currently owned by the state and used for worker trailers by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Polis proposes $42.1 million for a public safety package, which would direct funding to prosecute auto theft, expand sober recovery homes, help local law enforcement agencies recruit and retain officers, and fund crime reduction and intervention strategies in local communities. That includes $5.4 million into the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for expanding its toxicology lab and adding two Special Investigation units.
The governor's budget proposal includes $38.3 million for wildfire mitigation efforts, including $13.8 million for aerial support. The state water plan would get an investment of $17.6 million, well below its projected annual need of $100 million. All but $5 million of that $17.6 million would come from sports betting tax revenues. However, the governor noted that the state will put up $30 million in matching funds that his administration hopes will draw down about $200 million in federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, some of which, he said, will address state water plan needs.
The budget includes another $1.9 million to "protect water rights under the Colorado River compact." Polis explained that the money is geared toward engineering analysis and technical support to bolster Colorado's position as an upper basin state. The budget proposal says the money will build a "Colorado River Policy and Technical Support Team" that will assist with interstate river compact negotiations.
The budget's downside, Polis said, is "global economic uncertainty."
"We don't recommend record reserves for fun," he said.
The budget proposal will be taken into consideration by the Joint Budget Committee when it begins meeting next week to start its work on the 2023-24 budget. Polis will submit an amendment to the proposal in January.