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Headed for a train wreck in Colorado

By John Stencel

At the time the citizens of Colorado adopted constitutional amendments limiting taxes—namely the Tabor and Gallagher amendments—many felt they were merely curbing the Legislature’s ability to over tax and over spend. Today, these amendments, along with Amendment 23, which mandates increases in public education spending, have left the Colorado Legislature with some very grim prospects for the state’s future.

The severity of the cuts came to the forefront last year when the Legislature cut Colorado State University and its Cooperative Extension Service by more than $1.6 million, or 18 percent. The cuts resulted in the layoffs of 64 employees. At the same time, university tuition rates increased significantly. In addition, many of the services provided by the Colorado Department of Agriculture were either disbanded or have gone to 100-percent-user-fee funded.

If these and other cuts were temporary until state revenues rebound, it might be easier to stomach. However, provisions within the Tabor and Gallagher amendments automatically lower the baseline for spending to these new levels, ensuring the permanency of these drastic cuts. And, this is not the worst news. Using somewhat optimistic (Legislative Council) estimates, Colorado still has a $68.8 million shortfall for fiscal year 2003-04, which is nearly nine months over, and a $148.2 million shortfall for fiscal year 2004-05. Even if cuts are made at this late hour to the current fiscal year budget, savings from these cuts would be minimal. Therefore, the Legislature will be forced to make both years’ worth of cuts to the 2004-05 budget or borrow from other funds or both.

Spending mandates for education due to Amendment 23, Medicaid, Human Services and the Department of Corrections comprise 85 percent of the budget. This means that the cuts needed to balance the budget must come from the 15 percent considered discretionary. It includes agriculture services, higher education, and Cooperative Extension, all of which have already been severely cut.

To demonstrate the ridiculousness of the current state budgetary restraints, here is a fact. If no changes are made to Tabor, Gallagher or Amendment 23, within 10 years, K-12 education will become 100 percent of the state’s budget.

The Colorado Legislature has heard the voters loud and clear. Citizens want to squelch any inkling of out-of-control tax and spend policy. However, these amendments have pushed us to the opposite extreme, making ludicrous the budget choices now before the Colorado Legislature. It’s time for reason to prevail. We must act now to avoid a train wreck!

Should we just curb these amendments or repeal them all?