School of hard knocks 

Colorado Rep. Mark Waller heard Gov. John Hickenlooper's inauguration speech Tuesday, and the Republican says he was impressed.

"You always hear a lot of rhetoric," says Waller, the House assistant majority leader from Colorado Springs, "certainly from newly elected political leaders that we have to roll up our sleeves and work together. But listening to the governor's speech today, I wasn't cynical at all.

"As he is saying that we have to do it, I truly believe that that is what he wants to do. And I am hopeful that we are going to work in the spirit of bipartisanship. We have to."

This theme of partisan politics being set aside is echoed by Democratic leadership on the Senate side: "We fervently believe that Democrats and Republicans will work together in the Colorado Legislature," agrees Democrat John Morse, the Senate majority leader.

It's a popular notion in the aftermath of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the scrutiny of all the heated political bickering that has come with it. But Morse's comment came well before last weekend's tragedy, and there's something more behind the sobriety saturating Colorado politics.

In interviews with the Independent, Waller, Morse and Senate President Brandon Shaffer each say that the goal of balancing the budget is too daunting, and will be too painful — especially when it comes to education — to allow partisan politics to get in the way.

Hardly elementary

Having just heard from plenty of voters en route to his second term, Pueblo Rep. Sal Pace gets it: "Nothing is more important to Coloradans or this Legislature than fixing this economy and growing jobs."

Pace, the newly elected House Minority Leader, joined new District 18 Rep. Pete Lee at a Saturday morning town hall at Penrose Library. More than 50 people listened attentively as the pair described what they're up against.

"Unlike our friends in Washington, D.C., the state of Colorado has to, must, statutorily, constitutionally balance our budget," Lee told the crowd. "We don't have printing presses; we can't use I.O.U.s. We have to pay our bills, and when we create our budget we have to have revenues match our expenditures."

What does that mean for 2011?

In Morse's words: "I personally believe that we will really have to cut somewhere between $600 [million] and $800 million dollars when it comes down to it." He predicts the money will come out of K-through-12 and higher education, "and ... half of it comes from K-12 and half from higher ed."

In 2008, Colorado had $650 million from the general fund going to higher education. "We're at $350 million right now," Pace says in a later interview, "and the rest being back-filled by stimulus dollars, which is all going to go away for the next fiscal year."

Tuitions will have to increase dramatically, Pace predicts.

Cuts to K-through-12, which accounts for 43 percent of the state's $7.4 billion budget, just last year were $260 million, points out Morse. "So there are school districts now that have much leaner, if almost non-existent, transportation programs," he says, adding that he knows that the cuts will result in fewer teacher jobs in the fall.

"We are in a dire position," Pace says, and small, rural community colleges are most at danger.

"I think that we are getting to a point in our budget where you see different communities fight amongst themselves over whose community college that they are going to close," he adds. "I don't think that we will have that discussion this year, but we are pretty close to there."

No specifics yet

Waller says he's hearing projections that call for cuts of between $700 million and $1.2 billion. "The picture is grim," he says, "and there aren't a lot of one-time fixes."

Waller says in the recent past, Colorado's been able to fall back on one-time revenues and "creative accounting" to get by during budget season. Now, "We are out of tricks. We are going to have to make some cuts, and some of them will have to come out of higher education, but they are also going to have to come from a lot of areas."

While higher education is the easiest place to make cuts — many other areas have mandated funding requirements — Waller doesn't believe that is necessarily best. "If you talk to higher ed, they will tell you they have been cut significantly over the past couple of years. And they recognize that they will probably be a target again this year. To what degree, I am not sure at this point. But they are preparing themselves."

Waller is waiting to discuss particular areas to cut, saying, "One of the things that the governor said that he wasn't going to focus on is any specifics.

"We have made a commitment to the governor to be able to move forward and resolve this budget issue in a bipartisan fashion, not to pin him down or pin this process down to a degree where we are locked into specific cuts."



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