State budget should be a blueprint for building a better Colorado

How we spend our tax dollars reflects our values as a community. Colorado’s budget is more than simply a spending plan for state agencies. It should be a blueprint for fostering an inclusive economy, strengthening family economic security, and, in general, building a better Colorado.

The governor and leaders in the Colorado House and Senate have laid out a plan to invest in education and programs that help all Coloradans achieve economic self-sufficiency. We at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy support these priorities.  If we want to help those who have been left behind in the economic recovery, the budget must include more funding for classrooms at all grade levels, a first-time investment in adult basic education, assistance with child care expenses for working parents, and shoring up our essential safety net for those who are disabled and unable to work.

While some may characterize this spending plan as a spending spree, we see these investments as essential to making our economy stronger.

  • Public schools, from kindergarten through college, prepare young people to enter the workforce.
  • Adult basic education helps lift the unemployed and low-wage workers into jobs that pay a living wage.
  • Aid to Needy Disabled cash assistance provides a minimum amount of support to the most vulnerable Coloradans and can make the difference between being able to afford housing or being homeless.
  • The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program helps low-wage working parents stay in the workforce.

As legislators discuss updated forecasts for state revenue Tuesday, we should avoid focusing discussions on the absolute dollar amount in the state budget.  We should focus on whether the budget addresses unmet needs. Funding in each of these areas has lagged in recent years.

  • Since the start of the recession, Colorado has fallen behind on public school spending by over a billion dollars. Even with the proposed $300 million investment in public schools, Colorado will still be several hundred million dollars below the level of spending necessary to have kept up with the growth in the student population and inflation since 2007. If an extra $100 million in higher education spending is approved, Colorado will still provide less support for its colleges and universities than nearly every other state in the nation.  Starving colleges and universities of public funding has made tuition unaffordable even for median income families.
  • State support for the Child Care Assistance Program has declined by nearly 17 percent since 2007, making it impossible for many parents who want to work to be able to afford child care. Colorado is the fifth least affordable state in the nation for child care costs.
  • Colorado is the only state that does not provide any state funding for adult education classes. That leaves thousands of adults out of the workforce because they lack basic literacy skills necessary for entry level jobs.
  • Benefits provided through the Aid to Needy Disabled (AND) program have been cut continuously since the start of the recession even though the struggling economy prompted more people to seek help. With the tight housing market and rent on the rise, the decline in AND funding has left many people literally out in the cold.

One area of welcome relief is actually coming at no cost to the state — health care. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Colorado has enrolled 135,000 people in Medicaid, most of whom were previously uninsured.  The federal government is picking up the tab for every one of those people, and our community benefits not just from a healthier population but also from decreased spending on expensive emergency room care.

This budget being developed now addresses real human needs that will contribute to making Colorado’s economy stronger and more sustainable over the long term.  Even with an increase in revenues, thanks to rising incomes among high income earners, the state budget has a long way to go in providing sufficient support for our families and our economy.

Claire Levy began her tenure as the Executive Director of the nonprofit Colorado Center on Law and Policy in October. Prior to that she served n the Colorado House of Representatives, where she was Vice-chair of the Joint Budget Committee and chair of the Appropriations Committee.