Education, water, workforce housing, recession fears drive Polis’ pre-election budget proposal
Gov. Jared Polis unveiled a budget proposal Tuesday he described as “preparing for an uncertain future” — while also acknowledging there’s still an election and updated forecasts to come.
The state budget he proposed Tuesday totals $42.7 billion, of which $16.7 billion is in the general fund. That represents an increase of 3.5% and 7%, respectively, over the budget enacted this year. Polis noted that the general fund increase is below the rate of inflation.
It also maintains a 15% general fund reserve in case of a recession.
“There’s a risk of greater uncertainty, and we need to prepare for that,” Polis said at a press briefing. “Not always a fun thing to do, but it’s fiscally prudent and a sound thing to do.”
Otherwise, Polis also highlighted his proposal comes with an increase in education funding that equals $861 per student and nearly erases the so-called budget stabilization factor. The factor represents the discrepancy between what the state Constitution requires for education funding and what the state pays.
He also noted money for workforce housing on state lands, money to hire prosecutors to combat vehicle thefts, grants to secure schools, money for water, and money set aside as matching funds for federal infrastructure grants. On the latter point, Polis said he hopes to get “more than our fair share.”
But there is still a ways to go between this budget presentation and what the governor signs into law next March. For one, Polis needs to win his reelection bid in a week. Polls show him with a decisive lead over Republican nominee Heidi Ganahl, but ballots won’t be counted until next week. If she wins, her budget would certainly be dramatically different from Polis’.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Ganahl reiterated a campaign promise of a third-party audit of state spending and cutting the budget.
“This budget should frighten all Colorado families who are struggling to make ends meet in the face of an impending recession,” Ganahl said in the statement that blasted the increase to the budget. “You never hear Polis talk about cutting spending. When will enough be enough? Did Coloradans struggling to make ends meet see a 7% increase in their budgets? More government spending makes me even more curious about what is not being spent wisely in the first place.”
State economists will also present new economic forecasts in December. Using those updated figures, the governor will make an updated budget request in early January. A new legislature will ultimately decide on and pass the budget.
State Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, characterized Tuesday’s proposal as a starting point in the process. The committee crafts the budget through the legislature. While noting she still needs time to dive deeper into the document, McCluskie said she was pleased by the focus on education, wildfire mitigation and recovery, and water, while maintaining the reserves set by the legislature last session.
“Certainly there’s more work for us to do as a legislature,” McCluskie said. “I’ll be eager to receive the December forecast, and, as we move into the next session, being able to see what the legislature can do with these numbers. But for today, it’s a good starting point for us.”
State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the Joint Budget Committee, said it was a fairly low-profile budget proposal, especially compared to years that included big swings like universal kindergarten, the Behavioral Health Administration, and the Department of Early Childhood. He likewise credited the attention the proposal pays to public safety, education, and wildfire.
But, he expects the January budget to be significantly different, regardless of whether Polis or Ganahl wins.
“I expect (the January amendment) to be fairly significant because it’s an awkward time for the governor to be presenting a proposal with an election pending,” Rankin said, noting that the November proposal is a legal requirement.
State Sen. John Cooke, who leads the Republican caucus, shared Rankin’s assessment. Nothing in it immediately alarmed his caucus or caused it to celebrate, he said. Though he also had to rely on Rankin’s assessment, since legislative leadership wasn’t directly invited to hear the proposal. He expects to see “the real Jared Polis agenda come January.”
Outside of Joint Budget Committee members from both parties, Polis did not brief Democratic leadership, either, spokesperson Conor Cahill said. He cited the many leadership changes in the General Assembly due to term limits and said Polis will do a full briefing in January if he’s reelected.
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