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Pugliese: Polis’ $40 billion budget an ‘are you kidding me’ moment

Governor Polis has released his state budget for Fiscal Year 2022/2023. His budget is just a proposal and will go to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee for consideration. The Fiscal Year 2021/2022 budget was set at $30 billion dollars (and later adjusted). Governor Polis is asking for a $10 billion dollar increase, to $40 billion. Well, what’s $10 billion dollars among friends, right? Let’s take a deeper dive into what is really contained in the Governor’s budget.

Polis includes $1.27 billion dollars for one-time state investment to “meet the moment.” Governor Polis maintains that these one-time investments are needed to recover from the pandemic and make “transformational investments” in the state’s problems. The Governor also notes that “[o]ur state is facing a fiscal deficit with operating obligations growing faster than state revenue is constitutionally allowed to grow.” Well, thank goodness the good people of Colorado continue to support the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and limits to the growth of government!

The Polis budget contains $424.3 million dollars of General Fund money for the “Air Quality Investment Package.” No, the Governor does not propose to use any of this money to fix the damn roads. This package includes a $150 million dollar investment in a new school bus electrification grant program. Polis claims that 100% electric buses will help improve the health of our children in disadvantaged communities and address “long-standing pollution inequities.” It will also, in the Governor’s opinion, help attract more bus drivers. The problem with getting more school bus drivers apparently has everything to do with driving diesel buses and nothing to do with paying people not to work.

There is also a $28 million investment in “Ozone Season Transit Fares.” This program provides free transit fares during ozone seasons (typically, in the summer through early fall) for ozone non-attainment areas. The goal is to save transit users money so ridership can increase and low income residents can obtain services. There will be a partnership with transit agencies to provide free fares during the summer in these non-attainment areas. The basic premise here is “if it is free, they will come.” Also, stop driving to work to feed your kids and provide for your families. It is bad for the environment.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) will also receive $52.1 million for new investments in the Air Pollution Control Division to improve severe ozone non-attainment areas. The Governor acknowledges that this will not be enough money and will need to be addressed by an increase by the legislature beginning in Fiscal Year 2024/2025.

Just over $30 million dollars is proposed to be invested renovating state-owned facilities. While I agree with the Governor that access to high-quality child care is a concern for businesses and our workforce, is renovating buildings really the solution? The Governor suggests hiring “potential private partners” and these partnerships “will allow for additional child care capacity across the state without requiring ongoing state investments.” I would like to know how that works in real life. Or, does this become a state take-over of child care?

I love proposals that throw money at the problem without actually addressing the problem. The proposal includes business relief by reducing fees collected by the Secretary of State. If you really want to help businesses, maybe the fees should be permanently eliminated, not just temporarily reduced. I guess the problem there is where would the current Secretary of State get the money to promote herself on television without the help of our small and struggling businesses? The second part of this $21.7 million dollar proposal is to reduce fess and/or administrative costs related to sales and use tax compliance. Maybe we just make the process easier so businesses are not burdened to comply? Just a thought.

Over $57 million would go to paid Family and Medical Leave and reduce these new premiums by 10 percent. Sounds good, except those premiums are only reduced for the first six months. Family and Medical Leave benefits begin on January 1, 2024, but the premiums go into effect on January 1, 2023.

One of my personal favorites in the Governor’s proposed budget is the “Empowering Parents with School Information” fund. This fund will invest in improvements to the SchoolView site. The basis is that updating the technology will help parents feel confident that schools and school districts are being transparent so they can make “more informed decisions about education.” So, does the Governor think that he can silence the voice of parents at school board meetings with more data? This project comes with a one-time price tag of $526,000, with an ongoing General Fund need, and of course, more employees.

House Bill 21-1304 allowed for the creation of the entirely new Department of Early Childhood, which will go into effect on July 1, 2023. The $13 million dollar department, with 17 full-time employees, has been established to bridge fragmented early childhood services between the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education. The premise is that if there is one department, instead of two, at-risk children will have greater access to early childhood education. So, in other words, to make two departments more efficient in the delivery of services, we need to create a third department. The increased tax on tobacco, cigarette and nicotine products under voter-approved Proposition EE will fund universal preschool. If two departments are being combined, shouldn’t we see a decrease in the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education budgets to account for the shifting resources?

While Coloradans absolutely support the investment in our children’s education, is any of this money actually going to our children to improve their education? Or, are we using “it’s for the kids” as a way to continue to grow government? It is easy to start programs but money is needed to maintain them. Is this sustainable or is this the end of fiscal sanity as we know it?

Rose Pugliese is a former Mesa County Commissioner

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