Colorado budget finalized, sent to governor

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DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday approved a $23 billion budget, sending to the governor a spending plan for next year that pours more money into public education and funds an aerial firefighting fleet.

The House approved the budget on a 38-26 vote with only one Republican voting yes, underscoring what has been a tense process in the chamber. The Senate approved the budget Monday with greater bipartisan support.

In the budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1, legislators increased per-student funding at public schools by more than $200 to keep up with inflation and enrollment. The boost brings per-pupil spending to $6,875. Lawmakers also added $100 million to limit tuition increases at colleges.

In addition, the budget sets aside nearly $20 million to pay for a firefighting fleet in the aftermath of historic wildfire seasons.

It is now up to Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign the budget, which reflects an improving state economy. In recent years, lawmakers had to cut school funding and drained the state's rainy-day fund. Now, they are bringing up the reserves to 6.5 percent, so the fund stands at $576.4 million.

But having more money gave lawmakers more to fight about. And budget votes have become more partisan compared with two years ago, when each party controlled one of the chambers. Now, with Democrats in full control, Republicans have accused them of funding Democratic priorities while leaving the GOP marginalized in the process.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, called the budget irresponsible.

"This budget looks like a book of pet projects, and that's unfortunate," he said. Republicans were particularly incensed about nearly $800,000 budgeted for an existing restorative justice program, a process that allows victims to face their offenders.

Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran of Denver, the head of the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee, took issue with Sonnenberg's remarks, noting that those "pet projects" include more funding for higher education, training for district attorneys and an initiative to crack down on repeat drunken drivers.

"You have in front of you a budget that has a positive impact on essentially every community in the state of Colorado," Duran said.

Part of the tension during budget deliberations centered on a clash of personalities between Duran and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, another budget writer who chaired the JBC when Republicans controlled the House. Gerou was the only Republican in the chamber to vote yes on the budget this year, a move members of the JBC are expected to do.

"There's a difference in the tone in this chamber than what happened in the Senate," Gerou said. In the Senate, eight Republicans voted against the budget while another eight joined ruling Democrats to pass it on a 26-8 vote.

"And sometimes it's just the tone, the difference in tone that makes a difference," Gerou said before the final vote. "Part of the job of a joint budget committee chair is to sell the budget. And that's what we're going to see here. We're going to see how well the budget has been sold."


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