Education Budget on the Agenda in Colorado Special Session

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Colorado legislators were scheduled to begin a special session this week devoted partly to solving the state's education-budget troubles.

The legislature ended its regular session in May after putting off difficult decisions on how to handle a budget deficit that could total more than $230 million by next year.

The state has been hit with a surge in student enrollment at the same time that the recession has caused a decline in property-tax revenues and otherwise played havoc with the budget.

Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, last month suggested the legislature consider raising taxes and cutting spending to deal with revenue shortfalls.

Mr. Romer predicted that, without drastic action, the state budget deficit would grow by 1997 to somewhere between $585 million and $822 million.

In the short term, the Governor recommended cutting $100 million in spending and raising a similar amount in new taxes, perhaps by replacing the state's current flat-rate 5 percent income tax with a progressive rate.

The Governor's suggestion was not part of any formal proposal, however, explained Jane Nelson, a spokesman.

"We are in a pinch, but nothing is definite yet," she said. "We are looking at cutting and slashing the budget in every area."

Meanwhile, a legislative task force on education meeting last month decided to delay raising taxes for public schools for at least 18 months. Despite fears about the growing state deficit, the panel also refused to propose cuts in K-12 education spending.

Colorado's difficulties with school finance stem from a 1988 reform law that has never been fully funded.

State officials based that measure on the incorrect assumptions that property values would hold steady while enrollment would decline, Ms. Nelson noted.

Broader Reforms Urged

Mr. Romer's call for the special session allows for legislative action on public-school finance, such as "changes in state or local revenues or taxes," as well as on public-school "assessments and accountability."

The special session is also scheduled to deal with legislative redistricting and the death penalty.

But some legislators have urged the Governor to expand the agenda of the special session to include education-reform measures.

Senator Bill Owens, a Republican, said last month that he would introduce a package of bills that would establish a school-voucher program, require that administrative costs be reduced proportionate to teaching expenses when school budgets are cut, and provide that some school services be contracted out if they can be done at lower cost by private firms.

In their regular session, legislators failed to adopt a proposed measure that would have funded Colorado schools through 1993. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991 .)

One difficulty state officials have faced in trying to solve their problems with the education budget is an upcoming transitional fiscal year, which will run from Jan. 1 to July 1992. The half-year was created to bring the school fiscal year in line with the state's budget cycle.

The plan was supposed to give the state fiscal leeway to complete the phase-in of the 1988 school-finance act, while school districts operated on local property-tax revenues for six months. The plan was upset, however, by the enrollment increase and the drop in property-tax income.

Vol. 11, Issue 02, Page 14

Published in Print: September 11, 1991, as Education Budget on the Agenda in Colorado Special Session
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