By GENE DAVIS
Denver Daily News Staff Writer
The state should consider ending services like health care for veterans and road maintenance to help balance the budget, according to the union that represents state employees.
The Colorado Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee (JBC) yesterday was briefed on the proposed 2011-12 state budget that addresses a shortfall nearing $1 billion. Colorado Workers for Innovation and New Solutions (WINS), the union that represents more than 31,000 state employees, believes the proposed budget is “more of the same” as it cuts education and continues to “nickel and dime essential services.” Robert Gibson, executive director of Colorado WINS, believes the state must consider making difficult choices as essential services have already been cut to the bone.
“We’re already down to a skeleton budget and now the question is: do we keep starving services and shortchanging taxpayers or make tough choices about ending services like road maintenance, state parks and health care for our veterans?” said a statement from Robert Gibson, executive director of Colorado WINS.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer said while criticizing a budget proposal is fine, offering specific proposals or alternatives to keep the budget balanced is better. When asked whether eliminating road maintenance, state parks and health care for veterans counted as specific proposals, Dreyer responded that “realistic proposals are actually the best.”
For his part, JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said he understands the need to have a conversation about possibly eliminating services as budget shortfalls annually persist despite yearly cuts. And while he disagrees with the possible service cuts suggested by Colorado WINS, he believes lawmakers and Coloradans alike should engage in a conversation about what services they want and how they should be paid for.
A press release from Colorado WINS points out that a combination of budget cuts and underfunding have resulted in some facilities within the Department of Human Services to run out of food, soap and toothpaste for patients. In the Department of Corrections, budget cuts have led to chronic understaffing and violent criminals being housed in lower security facilities. The violent criminals in the lower security facilities have resulted in an increase in assaults on officers, inmates and inmate deaths, according to Colorado WINS.
“For the past few years we’ve been shortchanging essential services and that has consequences Đ lower quality education for our children, long lines at DMV, crumbling roads, increased safety risks to our communities,” said a statement from Gibson. “Unfortunately this budget proposal is more of the same. It cuts education and continues to nickel and dime essential services.”
With the proposed 2011-12 budget, Ritter has helped cut spending, reduce costs and close shortfalls of more than $5.2 billion since 2008.
Ritter said last week that the proposed budget was fiscally responsible while maintaining essential services. While funding would increase for K-12 education by $43 million, the funding is $92 million short of what is needed to cover an increase in enrollment and inflation. K-12 education now makes up almost half of the state general fund.
The proposed 2011-12 budget also preserves the same level of funding for higher education. However, the $89 million dollars in stimulus funds that helped prop up higher education this fiscal year will not be available during 2011-12. The Higher Education Strategic Plan last week proposed that Coloradans vote on a tax increase that would help fund Colorado colleges and keep them competitive.
The proposed budget also continues a 2.5-percent reduction to state employee take-home pay for a second year, and includes no pay increases for the third year in a row.
Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper and the new legislature will have the ultimate say on the 2011-12 budget. Ferrandino believes the proposed budget is well balanced and a good starting point, though he believes it won’t be the same budget that is passed into law.
Ferrandino is hopeful based on yesterday’s JBC meeting that the six-person committee, which is now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, will be able to work together going forward.
“There is definitely going to be a need for more compromise being a three-three committee,” he said. “My hope is that we can do that in a way that (is) best for the state.”