Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the state’s $40.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Monday, praising the historic funding for public education and bipartisan work of legislators for crafting a more normal budget as pandemic relief funds dry up.

“We had less money than we’ve had in previous years, but the hallmark of a good budget is one where no matter what you have, you’re listening to your constituents and you’re prioritizing the funds you do have to meet the moment and do what the public is hoping for with state resources,” said Rep. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, the bipartisan panel in charge of writing the budget.

It is a 3.7% increase over last year’s budget and reflects an increase of about $1 billion in general fund spending.

The Department of Health Care Policy and Financing will see the biggest bump in general fund dollars with a $512 million increase — mostly due to increased Medicaid costs — followed by the Department of Human Services with a $204 million increase, the Department of Treasury with a $153 million increase, the Judicial Department with a $75 million increase and the Department of Corrections with a $71 million increase.

The budget achieves a longstanding goal to fully fund public K-12 education in the state for the first time in 14 years by eliminating the so-called budget stabilization factor. The school-funding shortfall has been in place since the Great Recession and essentially amounts to a $10 billion IOU to schools. The budget, through the school finance act, devotes about $141 million to get rid of it.

Though funding for public schools will increase by more than $500 million and $737 per pupil, spending will be at 1989 levels when adjusted for inflation.

“We were able to buy down and pay off the budget stabilization factor this year, but it only because of the year prior and the year before that and the year before that — a series of decision making that were stacked on top of each other that led us to this point,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and JBC vice chair, said.

The budget also bumps funding for special education by 10.2% and for English language learners by 10.6%, increases of $34.7 million and $3.3 million respectively. Another budget-related bill also appropriates $24 million from the state’s education fund directly to schools in order to support the increase in migrant students in public schools, mostly in Denver.

The budget allows for a tuition increase at Colorado public universities of 3% for in-state students and 4% for out-of-state students.

The department in charge of Colorado’s universal preschool program, which is finishing its first year, will also see a $22 million increase to support the program and hopefully work out technological and administrative kinks.

Most of the amendments the House and Senate tacked onto the budget during floor debates did not make it into the signed version. The Joint Budget Committee retained parts of the amendments that fund services for aging adults, crime victim services, a youth services program and school security grants.

The budget also makes investments into workforce development and retention. That is spread across multiple departments, including a little over $9 million in the Department of Corrections and about $700,000 in the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. There is a 3% across-the-board salary increase for state employees.

Additionally, the budget provides $65 million in the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to increase the wages of workers in the home and community-based services. That sets the base wage for those workers at $16.55 statewide.

The upcoming fiscal year begins July 1.