Gov. John Hickenlooper (Craig F. Walker, Denver Post file photo)
A day before voters decide whether to give him another term, Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday unveiled a $26.8 billion state budget proposal for the next fiscal year that includes about $200 million in rebates to taxpayers.
The Democrat’s spending plan represents $1.7 billion in new spending in federal and state money, a 7 percent increase from the current fiscal year budget.
The $908 million in new state spending includes $103 million for road projects, $107 million in additional funds for higher education and a 2 percent pay hike for most state employees.
The new money available reflects Colorado’s improving economy but tax collections also exceeded the state’s revenue cap under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — triggering rebates for the first time in 15 years.
Hickenlooper’s budget puts aside $167.2 million for a TABOR rebate in the fiscal year 2015-16 budget, which state law directs toward a tax credit for low-income workers and sales tax refunds.
The constitutional provision mandates refunds when revenue exceeds the rate of inflation and population growth, unless voters decide to return the money.
Hickenlooper sidestepped the question about how to rebate another $30.5 million in excess recreational marijuana taxes, leaving it to state lawmakers to decide the appropriate method.
The TABOR rebate issue became a campaign touch-point a month ago when Hickenlooper wavered on whether he would endorse a tax rebate or ask voters for permission to spend it
, but eventually committed to a rebate at an Oct. 24 debate.
The governor’s aides briefed reporters on the budget proposal Monday afternoon while Hickenlooper worked the campaign trail.
In his 28-page letter to lawmakers outlining his plan, Hickenlooper touted the state’s economy. “Colorado’s economic activity continues to outperform the national expansion,” he said.
Republican challenger Bob Beauprez saw the governor’s budget as an opportunity to poke at Hickenlooper about the TABOR rebates, which he firmly supported in the campaign.
“We’re pleased that, thanks to Bob Beauprez’s leadership, John Hickenlooper has suddenly discovered it’s the taxpayers’ money, not his,” campaign spokesman Allen Fuller said in a statement. “Even this election eve 180-degree flip is not enough to erase over a decade of pushing for billions in tax increases.”
The timing of the governor’s budget release only added to the political context, but the date is prescribed in state law. The Joint Budget Committee — a panel of three House and three Senate lawmakers — will meet Nov. 12 to hear Hickenlooper’s plan and begin deliberations.
Other key provisions in the governor’s plan include:
• A total $480 million more for education, including a one-time $200 million infusion from state coffers, to increase per pupil funding to $7,496, a $475 increase.
• Another $155 million to cover an expected 218,000 new Medicaid patients whose cost is not entirely paid by the federal government under the program’s expansion
• More than $8 million for counties to hire 130 new child welfare employees meant to reduce onerous case loads.
• An additional $282 million to finish state constructions projects underway, including money to reduce wait times by upgrading the state’s driver’s license system.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said she supports Hickenlooper’s spending priorities. “We are at a turning point with the economic recovery, and we have a lot at stake with this next budget,” she said in a statement.
What happens Election Day will influence the budget plan’s direction. Democrats now control both chambers and hold a 4-to-2 advantage on the budget committee.
The state House is likely to remain in Democratic hands, but Republicans are vying for control of the state Senate. If Republicans win the Senate majority, the budget committee will split the political parties 3 to 3.
If Beauprez wins, he will get the opportunity to submit his own budget proposal early next year.
John Frank: 303-954-2409, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ByJohnFrank