No easy choices for budget cuts

To the editor,

Colorado’s general fund is taking a pounding during the pandemic. Unless Washington steps in with more aid to state and local governments, legislators are facing the challenge of cutting potentially up to $3 billion from our $12.4 billion general fund budget, affecting K-12 education, health care, higher education and core services.

Colorado’s budget must be balanced. About 40 percent of it is difficult to cut because it covers corrections, federally mandated programs, health care and other critical public safety services. The federal CARES money we’ve received cannot be used for ongoing budget items, like K-12 funding; it is only for COVID-19-related expenses spent during a limited time period.

So during this time when most people believe legislators are lounging at home, we were working hard. Lawmakers were busy helping constituents and preparing for our return on May 26. We listened to constituents, Chamber of Commerce representatives and county public health departments. We held town halls, examined budgets, made phone calls and advocated for our constituents.

We want a budget that addresses the needs of the hard-working Coloradans affected by this unnerving pandemic.

The non-partisan state budget staff made suggestions as to how we can start balancing the budget by finding the $3 billion in cuts we need, and sent us lists of bills, pilot programs, grants, cash funds and established programs we can adjust. Their cuts were about a third of what we may ultimately need.

Every person, department and segment of society will feel the cuts we must make. With K-12 education holding 36 percent of the budget, it will be nearly impossible to spare our schools entirely. As Chair of the Education Committee, I have been searching for every dollar, trying to protect as much funding as we can for our school districts. Our initiatives helping rural teachers stay with their schools, repay their loans and connect with other teachers are all on the table for potential cuts.

Higher education, with 9 percent of the budget, will likely see a drop in attendance, and therefore less money, as well as help, from the state. Schools are recovering from refunding students for their fees, room and board, plus buying equipment for online learning. Most schools had already absorbed massive cutbacks before COVID-19 hit; they do not have much more to give.

The state may also find savings in the Colorado Tourism Bureau’s budget. Tourism creates so many jobs in District 59, making reductions to this office a painful and potentially short-sided proposition. I am hopeful we can still set aside some funding to promote economic development.

We may be losing funding for seniors on Medicaid who need dental care, law enforcement, health clinics, road maintenance, homeless veterans and the mental health care we will certainly need after the job losses so many are enduring. It is sadly the people with the least who are often hurt the most during a crisis.

The federal government has given money to the state and the largest five counties in Colorado but did not specifically direct money to our smaller counties and governments. I join the many lawmakers who are committed to providing some of the remaining federal funding to smaller counties. That money would still be limited to specific COVID-19 expenses; we can’t use it to complete construction projects, open the restaurants and schools necessary to keep our farmers in business, or protect funding for colleges and universities.

What does this all mean? Nothing pretty. We’re experiencing a considerably worse dive than the Great Recession of 2008. Every family will have access to fewer resources. Every state department will be hit. Hard. Every local government service may be diminished.

We need to continue to help each other, giving what we can. We need to have empathy for those who have little, and praise for those who help them. The Colorado Legislature is facing the worst financial catastrophe ever with focus and compassion. We are going to prioritize education, health and safety as we work to protect our most vulnerable and ease how painful this budget may be.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango