By Marianne Goodland
State Capitol Correspondent
The 2023-24 state budget is now in front of lawmakers at the state Capitol.
During the past week, the Senate worked on the $38.5 billion budget, adding $85.5 million in additional spending that included $354,000 in funding for the Yuma school district, intended to help the district pay for the costs of replacing its former Indian mascot.
That amendment came from Sen. Byron Pelton, R-Sterling.
Majority Democrats in the General Assembly passed a law in 2021 requiring all public schools with Indian mascots to replace them, except for two that had preexisting agreements with Indian tribes for the use of their Indian symbols.
More than two dozen schools, including the three in the Yuma district, were required to replace those mascots, at a cost likely to run into the millions of dollars. The sponsors of legislation, including Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, who frequently points to her farm roots, included in the bill an opportunity for schools to obtain grants to cover part of those costs through the state’s Building Excellent Schools Together (BEST) program.
However, the Department of Education put funding for the mascots at the bottom of the BEST program’s priority list, and to date, no school that has sought a grant has been awarded one, including Yuma.
Pelton’s amendment passed on an 18-17 vote, with Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, casting the deciding vote.
However, the budget process rarely goes so smoothly, and the amendment was stripped off the budget bill when it was heard in the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. That’s standard for amendments added to the budget bill in its first chamber.
The state Constitution requires the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget, and the amendments pushed the budget out of balance.
Pelton told this reporter he would seek a Democratic sponsor for the Yuma amendment as the budget bill goes through the House this week.
The budget, at $38.5 billion, is 8.9-percemt higher than the current year’s budget that ends on June 30. Two-thirds of the additional spending of $1.2 billion goes to one agency – the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which has among its biggest duties Medicaid.
State budget writers explained to this reporter that out of the $844 million more headed to HCPR, half will provide for people on Medicaid who are currently covered under a higher match from the federal government tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency, which ends this month. About 325,000 Coloradans were added to the Medicaid rolls during the pandemic.
Much of the rest goes to pay for a 5-percent boost in provider rates. That’s for service providers, including medical professionals and social workers. The state is having trouble hanging onto service providers because of the low reimbursement rates.
Per pupil funding in K-12 education is going up by $900 per student, or about $485 million in the 2023-24 budget. But the appropriation for education decreased by $134 million. That’s due to declining enrollment and higher property taxes, which lessened the amount the state must cover in the K-12 budget.
State employees are getting a 5-percemt across the board pay hike, along with other incentives, to help cover workforce shortages, particularly in the Department of Corrections. Those other incentives include bonuses, moving people into the middle of the state’s pay ranges, higher pay, and reclassifying job descriptions.
The budget is paid for with $14.7 billion in general fund dollars, which come from corporate and individual income taxes. Cash funds add $10.5 billion; that’s money that pays for specific programs and agencies; college tuition makes up the bulk of those dollars. Federal dollars, including the Medicaid match, add another $13 billion.
A bill from Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, to study the economic impacts of the Republican River sailed through the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee.
The Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University would be tasked with conducting the study contained in House Bill 1220, Holtorf told the committee in a recent hearing. The study would look at the river’s impact in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.
As a result of previous agreements, the Republican River Water Conservation District is attempting to retire 25,000 irrigated acres in the river’s south fork, with minimal economic impact to Eastern Colorado, Holtorf told the committee. That means convincing farmers that they need to change how they irrigate.
Retiring acres is difficult right now because of high commodity prices, Holtorf said. The study would look at the importance of retiring wells in the south fork to meet the tri-state compact agreement, and to show that it isn’t just a Colorado problem, and one that may require renegotiating the compact when it expires in 2029.
Ag Chair Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, is a co-sponsor, critical support the bill needs to get through the Democratic-dominated House and Senate.
She pointed out to the committee the 2022 legislation that put $30 million in federal dollars toward helping to retire wells in the Republican River. The study will tell us the “what if” and help make decisions in the future, she said.
John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center, said the study would ask what the economic consequences would be for not meeting compact compliance, both for the Republican River basin and the entire region.
Rod Lenz of Holyoke, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District, said the district has so far retired 7,700 acres out of the 25,000 and required to retire 10,000 acres by the end of next year to remain on target for the 2029 deadline.
Since 2004, the district has self-assessed more than $150 million to stay in compliance, Lenz said. “We’re making really good progress…and are right on schedule” to spend the $30 million, which will get them to the 10,000 acres required by 2024.
This is a difficult time in the basin, said Debra Daniel, the district’s general manager. Most important is to focus on the 25,000 acres that have to be retired and keep agriculture going in the basin, she said.
The bill won a unanimous vote from the ag committee and is now in front of the House Appropriations Committee.