Budget clears statehouse with near-unanimous approval

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DENVER — All but one state representative voted in favor of a $19 billion budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which is now on its way to the state Senate.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, was the only lawmaker to vote no, as others on both sides of the aisle, a day after arguing over a few dozen fruitless amendments, heralded the bill’s passage as a true bipartisan compromise.

“This budget is a responsible budget, one that increases funding for education, protects our seniors, invests in our students and helps to build a better Colorado,” said House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

After the Joint Budget Committee agreed on most of the details last week, the House essentially provided a rubber stamp.

“Politics is compromise, and on a JBC with three Democrats and three Republicans, we got through the budget process without a lot of acrimony,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, the only House Democrat on the powerful committee.

“That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the result. We could have put more resources into education, the disabled and low-income seniors, but we couldn’t because the senior property tax exemption diverted so much funding.”

Following a more optimistic state revenue forecast announced on March 21, the JBC was able to spend another $199 million it didn’t expect to have available.

That allowed the committee to restore the $98.5 million senior homestead exemption, a tax break for all senior homeowners, which was the top priority for House Republicans even though Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democrats wanted to provide aid only to poorer seniors and put additional money elsewhere.

But, caving on the homestead exemption allowed Democrats to win a concession from the GOP to reduce a proposed cut to state agencies that the state’s labor union worried would cost 500 jobs.

The improving revenues also allowed lawmakers to put more money into K-12 education so that per-pupil spending levels will remain at current-year levels despite an uptick in enrollment; and to keep higher-education funding close to the current level.

The budget proposal also calls for closing Colorado State Penitentiary II in Cañon City, which is expected to save the state $13.5 million a year.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill next week. Any changes made there, which are almost inevitable, will force the budget to go before a conference committee, which will iron out the final details.