As budget improves, state workers remain on chopping block

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DENVER — Monday’s revelation that Colorado has an additional $199 million to spend next year doesn’t appear to be enough to save several hundred state employees from the chopping block — or to stop the partisan rancor from escalating as the budget debate heats up.

The revenue gains will be enough to restore a property tax exemption for all Colorado seniors and to ensure that per pupil spending on K-12 education doesn’t drop next year.

But a proposed cut to state agencies’ payrolls is still a part of the budget proposal, after the Joint Budget Committee on Monday split over whether or not to reverse it.

Three Democrats voted to restore the proposed cuts, but three Republicans on the committee voted to maintain them — and the partisan sniping escalated Tuesday afternoon as House Democrats blasted Republicans for giving themselves a premature pat on the back, taking issue with a GOP press release issued Monday celebrating a budget agreement.

“This budget is a win for all Coloradans,” said Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, in the press release. “Last year, House Republicans announced that we would prioritize state revenues with a focus on eliminating unnecessary and wasteful spending. House Republicans also committed ourselves to not increasing taxes on Colorado’s senior citizens, and protecting funding for cancer prevention and treatment.

“We accomplished all of this and more.”

There’s just one thing — the budget hasn’t even been introduced yet, and Democrats aren’t ready to go along with the House GOP plan.

Specifically, House Democrats are digging in on the proposed cut to state agencies.

“We have to balance the budget, but we don’t have to do it in a way that further reduces state services and puts more people out of work,” said House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

Colorado WINS, the union representing state workers, estimates that keeping the 2 percent reduction in place will result in the loss of between 450 and 500 state workers, affecting those in higher education, Youth Correctional Institutions, Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, State Patrol troopers and DMV offices.

“These guys don’t know when to let up,” Ferrandino said of McNulty and his GOP caucus. “They’re talking about laying off state troopers, prison guards and hospital workers. Our state workers are not the problem. Democrats will fight to hang on to state employees who protect our health and safety.”

Republicans have downplayed those claims and argued that layoffs can be avoided through “vacancy savings” — not filling vacant positions when they open up.

But Henry Sobanet, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s director, informed the J.B.C. last month that such savings have been exhausted and that the proposed cut to agencies’ payrolls will likely result in layoffs.

Specifically, the Office of State Planning and Budgeting estimates that the cut will force the layoffs of 10 state troopers, 20 employees at CMHI and 15 additional caregivers for the developmentally disabled, at least 80 workers at correctional facilities housing adults and children convicted of crimes, and 10 employees at driver’s license offices across the state.

On Tuesday, Sobanet told the Denver Post that Hickenlooper, despite the J.B.C.’s vote Monday to restore the senior homestead exemption, favors passing a law to suspend it for a third straight year, which would save the state $96.1 million.

Doing so would force an ugly fight with Republicans, who made restoring the tax break their top budgetary priority.

Avoiding the cut to state agencies’ budgets will cost the state an estimated $20.3 million next year.