23 June 2009

Prisons Spending Targeted For Cuts

Historically, Colorado has tended to cut higher education when state funds have dried up, while leaving K-12 education, prisons and Medicaid, the other big ticket general fund budget lines, untouched. The state constitution limits how deeply K-12 educatioon can be cut, prisons spending cuts can be controversial and hard to implement in the short term, and Medicaid comes with federal matching funds that are lost when it is cut. But, now that federal stimulus funds limit how much the state can cut higher education, prison spending is back in the spotlight as a prime target for reductioon in the state budget.

To meet tax collection shortfalls experienced this spring, Colorado's state government will be raiding cash reserve funds, eliminating a $100 million a year property tax break for senior citizens, and scaling back a planned $110 million increase in K-12 education, to address a $384 million shortfall in the July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010 state budget year. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter's ability to access the cash reserve funds to deal with the immediate shortfall is a result of the Joint Budget Committee's foresight:

When lawmakers passed the 2009-10 budget, they knew that the current year's budget might still end up short. They gave Ritter, a Democrat, the authority to transfer up to $500 million from cash funds and reserves meant for the next year to cover the current year's deficit.

Raids of cash reserve funds pushed $249 million of less than expected sales tax impact on this years budget to the '09-'10 fiscal year.

Since the start of the recession last year, state revenue projections for the current budget year have dropped more than $1 billion.. . . The good news, such as it is, is that higher education is likely to be spared any significant cuts, said Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee. Though she had speculated earlier this month that a growing deficit could prompt lawmakers to whack spending for colleges and universities, Keller said Monday that recently received federal stimulus funds required Colorado not to cut its higher education spending below 2005 levels, which it has already done. . . .

Asked where else the state could look for savings, Keller said spending on prisons could trim, possibly by restructuring sentencing laws.

Other things the state could consider, she said, include cutting the number of days open for state parks, driver's license offices and courts.

Prison system cuts generate real money. State parks, driver's license offices and courts cost only a pittance relative to the state budget as a whole. Prison spending has tripled as a percentage of general fund spending in the state, largely as a result of 1985 legislation that doubled presumptive prison sentence ranges for all offense.

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