The public’s guide to the Colorado state budgeting process, and how to get involved

The Colorado state budgeting process may be long and complicated, but for good reason: It dictates how much of the billions of dollars go to things like education, health care, human services, transportation, prisons and other areas that affect residents’ lives.

This year, budget writers also must take into account the economic impacts of COVID-19 and requests for more state aid for pandemic-addled businesses as well as requests to restore cuts from last year and increase reserves.

Although the 2021 legislative session is in recess through Feb. 16, lawmakers are still holding meetings of the powerful Joint Budget Committee with the goal of getting a final budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year on Gov. Jared Polis’ desk by April or May. But a lot has to happen before then, and that’s where Coloradans come in.

The public will have the opportunity to provide input on the spending plan that covers the upcoming fiscal year at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, either remotely or with written testimony at the General Assembly’s website. The hearing will also be livestreamed online.

It’s been only two years since budget committee members started taking public testimony at this point in the process, and it usually elicits suggestions on a wide range of state services and programs as well as economic development plans.

The committee’s vice chairwoman, Dillon Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie, said lawmakers are committed to a transparent budget process that includes voices from all over the state, especially since the pandemic is affecting rural areas differently than urban areas.

“We are looking at a tough couple of years ahead for the state,” McCluskie said. “We are in the middle of an economic crisis as we try to figure how do we stimulate our economy to get us back on track.”

The budgeting process, explained

The state’s General Fund makes up more than $13 billion of the overall budget for the upcoming fiscal year — and that’s what lawmakers have direct authority over. Other parts of the budget are comprised of federal dollars, cash funds — mostly from fees, required by law to be spent in specific areas — and funds transferred between departments.

But lawmakers aren’t starting from scratch: They have past budgets to look at, as well as Polis’ $35.3 billion budget request.

Each state agency also speaks with the Joint Budget Committee, and in January, agencies can submit requests for mid-year adjustments and amendments. The attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state also submit budget requests for the next fiscal year.

From now until early March, the committee considers recommendations for the budget, and then takes into account the quarterly March revenue forecast (scheduled this year for March 19), because lawmakers have to pass a balanced budget.

The legislative budget plan, known as the “Long Bill,” is introduced and goes before both chambers in the legislature. After it’s approved, lawmakers send it to the governor’s office, usually with plenty of time to spare in case of any potential vetoes so that lawmakers can make changes before adjourning.

Of course, the timelines are subject to change due to the pandemic. To see the tentative schedule for the budgeting process this year, click here. For more on the budget requests, click here.

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