Budget Travails Trip Up State’s Civil-Rights Watchdog

By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY

The state’s Civil Rights Division “may be in jeopardy” due to funding woes, a top official told a legislative panel Wednesday. In a hearing at the Capitol before the Joint Budget Committee, Barbara Kelley, head of the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, pointed to the same strapped state budget that has bedeviled other state agencies of late, but she also noted the division–which investigates discrimination claims in housing and the workplace–is particularly vulnerable.

The Civil Rights Division is unique in Kelley’s department in that it receives both state tax revenue and federal funds rather than revenue from user fees, which fund much of the rest of her agency. The division, says Kelley, has done its part to help the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter balance the state’s budget for the last three years; the resulting cuts have affected its ability to qualify for federal money. She said the latest round of cuts in state funding to the Civil Rights Division “has reached a point of jeopardizing federal funds the division receives.”

Kelley told the panel that federal funds are based on the quantity of timely, successful investigations into cases of housing and employment discrimination. With fewer investigations completed due to declining state funding, she said, “we don’t have the ability to increase our portion of federal funds.”

Kelley noted that the fee-generated cash funds that make up over 96 percent of her department’s $70.9 million budget are collected through the department’s wide-ranging regulatory activities and only can be used to cover the costs of those functions–not to help sustain the Civil Rights Division.

Nonetheless, lawmakers and the Ritter administration have relied heavily on cash funds from various programs in recent years to fill in funding gaps in the the state’s operating budget. Cash funds are made up of money collected as fees and assessments for specific purposes such as a licensing fee paid by regulated industries.

“The fee-payer dollars that support DORA appropriations are every bit as precious as tax dollars, and fee impacts create very real consequences for the professionals and businesses we regulate,” said Kelley. “We fully understand and remain committed to our obligation for the wise and efficient use of fee-payer resources.”

Kelley lobbied the committee to keep the Civil Rights Division afloat despite the fact that it is the only part of her department receiving tax revenue out of the operating budget–and despite assurances by Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, that the division was not under consideration for elimination.

“You could eliminate every program (within DORA) across the board and you would not impact the state’s budget by one dime, except, with respect to the allocation to the Division of Civil Rights,” said Kelley. “If you’re asking me if I as the executive director of DORA would recommend to you that we disband the Civil Rights Division to save $1.5 million, my response is, absolutely not.”

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