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Are we truly balancing the budget?

Act One of the budget bill drama in the Colorado Senate is over, with the final reading of the bill package calendared for early this week.

Assuming they pass, the bills then head to the House for consideration, debate and passage there. If amended, they return to the Senate.

It’s probably confusing that the state’s budget is being debated at the same time that there’s much media attention on the federal budget bill. The federal bill is way behind schedule, while the state’s budget is normally handled now for the upcoming fiscal year beginning on July 1. The federal fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. Neither of these match a calendar year, so there’s good reason to be confused!

What’s also different between our two budgets is the magnitude of the dollars involved, although it’s still daunting to be dealing with millions and billions of taxpayer dollars rather than the trillions at stake at the federal level. The most notable difference between the state and federal budget process, though, is Colorado’s requirement for a balanced budget.

To get to a balanced budget, given the current economy, Colorado can’t avoid cuts to education, roads, healthcare and many other services. I’ve long maintained that setting the budget is the single most important task before the state Legislature and we’re faced with many hard, but inevitable, choices.

Before the ink was dry on this year’s first draft of the budget, e-mails and phone messages to all legislators were flooding in with pleas to spare cuts to many areas of the state budget. The members of the Joint Budget Committee, (JBC), have been working on the proposed bills for months and they’ve got their work cut out for them as fellow legislators try to amend the bills in any number of ways to save their preferred programs.

But, with few exceptions, the Senate JBC held their ground on their proposals. Leadership from both sides of the aisle had considerable input to the original proposals and the Senate Republican caucus spent many hours discussing what was needed in the bills that we could vote for to achieve the goals of a balanced budget and putting Coloradans back to work.

I’ve made it no secret either in these columns or at the Capitol that I feel we’re not truly balancing the budget when we transfer severance tax money to fill budget holes. Yet, there’ll be real and difficult consequences to the cuts we must make even with the severance tax transfer. This financial hole we’re in will take years to climb out of, but, as we do that, I’ll continue to argue for true budget balancing measures that are not disproportionately burdensome to the less populated areas of the state.

As the “Long Bill” and other budget related measures work their way through the House committees and floor debates and votes, the Senate will return to the bills remaining before us. This hasn’t been an easy session, but no one could’ve reasonably expected otherwise.

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