By Brian Eason, Associated Press
The Colorado state Senate on Thursday approved a $28.9 billion state budget over the objections of fiscal conservatives and some Democrats, sending the annual spending plan to conference committee.
The two-day budget debate transpired much like last week’s vote in the House of Representatives, with lawmakers approving millions of dollars in new spending on a variety of pet projects and boosting funding to rural broadband, affordable housing and school security.
A bipartisan majority led by Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, also restored $750,000 in funding for film industry incentives, a governor’s office economic development program that fiscal conservatives and some Democrats for years have tried to abolish. The annual spending blueprint, known as the long bill, passed 26-8. Four Democrats joined four Republicans in opposition, with one senator absent.
The disparities between the House and Senate bills are relatively minor. Both plans call for $495 million for transportation projects, $225 million to pay down the state pension’s unfunded debt to retirees and a $150 million boost to annual K-12 school funding. They also agree to earmark $35 million for school security grants, money that was added in the wake of February’s high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
In the Senate, Democrats sought more for schools, while House Republicans had pushed to boost funding for roads. But rosy economic forecasts left the state unexpectedly flush with cash, producing enough funding to avert a protracted partisan battle over the competing priorities.
Some points of contention remain. The Republican-led Senate rejected a House plan to earmark the bulk of the transportation funding for local governments and alternate forms of transportation, such as mass transit. In a surprise move, the Senate also set aside more funding for affordable housing grants — $5 million, instead of the $1 million House Democrats had sought.
Both chambers agreed to spend $4.8 million on housing for ex-offenders that suffer from mental health disorders.
The budget drew a rebuke from fiscal conservatives, who chastised their colleagues for what they characterized as a reckless spending spree on special interests. The two chambers approved a combined 55 amendments, said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, a member of the budget writing committee.
“Please, please, next time show a little more discipline,” said Lundberg, who is serving his final year in office.
Some Democrats, too, criticized the plan — particularly the money set aside for school security. They said more armed guards in schools would only exacerbate existing tensions between minorities and law enforcement.
Sen. Dominic Moreno, D-Commerce City, said that while the budget was imperfect, it largely reflected the priorities of lawmakers and their constituents.
“Is it a perfect budget? Absolutely not,” Moreno said. “But I feel pretty good about the value statements that we’re making with this budget. I feel pretty good about how we’re addressing the needs of our citizens in Colorado.”