One of the many peculiarities of Colorado’s complex state budgeting process is the legislature’s weakness for spending – or at least promising to spend – money before it’s even collected.

The latest example popped up just last week, when the House approved House Bill 14-1342, a measure that would provide extra funding for higher education construction projects – but only if the 2013-14 budget year ends with more surplus revenues than currently predicted.

K-12 education has benefited from such tactics in the past, and there has been some fear in districts that this year’s higher ed plan might disadvantage K-12.

The scheme probably means that the State Education Fund would receive a smaller infusion of cash than it might have otherwise. But in any event the higher ed finance plan won’t affect district funding in 2014-15, an issue that’s the focus of a separate – and bigger – debate.

“It’s based on ‘if’ there’s money left at the end of the year,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee.

So the K-12 lobby has decided not to pick a fight over HB 14-1342 and instead to remain focused on its main goal for 2014 – persuading lawmakers to make as large a dent as possible in the state’s $1 billion K-12 funding shortfall.

“Do we like this amendment? No!” Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives wrote in an email to members last week. He said the CASE legislative team recommended “that we do not get drawn into a battle with higher education, the governor and the Joint Budget Committee” and remain focused on reducing the shortfall, known at the statehouse as the “negative factor.” A group of superintendents is pushing for a reduction of as much as $275 million. A pending bill, House Bill 14-1292, proposes $100 million.

That doesn’t mean HB 14-1342 will get a free ride in the Senate. Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, vice-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, doesn’t like the idea of earmarking unknown future revenues. “I’m not the biggest fan,” Steadman said Tuesday morning before the bill was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I expect we’ll be talking more about the bill on the floor,”

Budget timeline
  • The legislature will vote by May 7 on a budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
  • That budget is based on revenue estimates that were issued in late March.
  • Actual tax collections almost always differ from those estimates, especially when revenues are increasing.
  • So, backers of HB14-1342 are betting that when the state closes its 2013-14 books next fall there will be a bigger actual surplus than was predicted this spring, providing money for buildings.

Summary of HB 14-1342

Like virtually every other budget fight, the HB 14-1342 tussle has its roots in the 2008 recession, which sent state tax revenues into a tailspin. Among the many programs cut was construction on college campuses.

Revenues have been slowly recovering over the last two years, and lawmakers, lobbyists and executive branch bureaucrats hoped the 2014 legislative session would provide the opportunity to put some catch-up spending in the 2014-15 budget.

Even before the session started, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $100 million increase in higher ed operating funds, a plan widely supported in the legislature. And college leaders and lobbyists also were looking forward to a boost in construction funding.

The Capital Development Committee, a joint House-Senate panel that reviews construction projects, produced a list that included some college projects. But the committee’s plans were derailed on March 20 when JBC members announced they would back an alternative project list supported by Gov. John Hickenlooper, which included only two higher education buildings, one at the Auraria Higher Education Center and one at the University of Colorado campus in Colorado Springs.

That’s when the higher education lobby and sympathetic legislators sprang into action and came up with the plan to spend possible future money on those campus buildings. The amendment was added to the bill last Thursday and given final approval in the House on Friday.

The amended bill protects two programs that the 2013 legislature had designated as recipients of sany urplus funds – the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($30 million) and the State Education Fund ($31.1 million).

In theory, that means the SEF would get less money than it would have under a 2013 law that allocated 75 percent of any surplus to the fund. (The SEF is a dedicated account that is used to supplement state General Fund spending on schools and for other K-12 spending.)

Even with the cap on the SEF transfer, Hamner called the bill “a fair compromise,” adding, “I have to look at the bigger view” of both K-12 and higher ed needs.

If there’s enough surplus to cover the water board and SEF transfers (plus $10.3 million to be kept in the General Fund), then any money above that would go to a ranked list of higher education construction projects. There’s a cap of $119.5 million on the campus spending. If the surplus revenue is more than about $190 million, the money above that goes to the SEF.

In past years lawmakers have used the future-revenues gambit to benefit the education fund, and those gambles have paid off. For instance, the SEF last fall received slightly more than $1 billion in 2012-13 surplus funds.

And K-12 advocates are trying to go back to that well. A House amendment to House Bill 14-1298, the annual School Finance Act, proposes diverting 75 percent of any 2014-15 surplus into the SEF.

Earmarking to-be-collected funds, whatever the purpose, bothers Steadman, one of the legislature’s budget experts. “It’s not the way to do it,” he said in an interview. Noting that the legislature meets every year, he notes, “We’ll be here next year to spend next year’s money.” Budgeting should be done “in real time,” he said.

He also said earmarking too much money ahead of time might limit the 2015 legislature’s ability to make annual mid-year budget adjustments.

The Senate is considering HB 14-1342 this week, along with the main 2014-15 budget, House Bill 14-1336. Steadman says he’ll have some proposed amendments for the higher ed construction bill, so the debate will continue.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and other information.