Fiscal planning in the wake of a national recession was the major topic of conversation at a town hall meeting Saturday with state legislators Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.
The pair were in town to participate in the Legislator Lowdown sponsored by the Montezuma County League of Women Voters. The event was held in the Calvin Denton Room at Empire Electric.
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was also invited to the forum but was unable to attend due to responsibilities with the states redistricting committee.
Each of the legislators gave a brief introduction before taking questions from the roughly 70 community members in attendance.
I want to start with the budget, and that is followed by a big sigh, Roberts said. We have two ways to look at the budget. One is the short term, and the other is the long term. We cant ignore either one. We have huge budget challenges, and the main issue that we deal with is through our states constitution we have conflicting provisions telling legislators where we have to spend the money.
Roberts detailed the states budget woes, explaining the Legislature is responsible for cutting $300 million from the current budget and $1.1 billion from next years budget. The senator also laid out the breakdown of the states budget, noting that 41 percent of the states budget is dedicated to K-12 education, 30 percent is spent on health and human services and roughly 10 percent goes to prisons.
Everything else (in the budget) fits into the remaining 20 percent, Roberts said. There is very little room to move as legislators as we try to figure out how to pay for roads and higher education and the state department of agriculture. There is very little money in general, and in a budget crisis like this there is virtually nothing.
Roberts encouraged constituents to visit www.backseatbudgeter.com, an online simulation that allows members of the public to try their hand at balancing the states budget.
Brown also spent time discussing the budget, noting the Legislature is faced with a large challenge in balancing the states finances.
We are a billion dollars in the hole, Brown said. We have to cut a billion dollars out of a $7 billion general fund budget, and thats tough. The budget problems have come about incrementally. Every time the government got a little extra money, we spent it, and now we are in trouble.
The legislators discussed two specific bills at the forum. One bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, would make it more difficult to put constitutional amendments on the ballot by requiring amendments to pass by 60 percent of the vote, rather than a simple majority. The other bill, sponsored by Roberts, would change the composition of the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association board. The bill, House Bill 11-1248, would change the 15-member boards make-up from 12 PERA members and three governor appointed nonmembers to nine PERA members and six governor appointees.
A number of residents in attendance expressed concern with changes to the PERA structure.
Im hear to pass on a common message from the local PERA association, said Larry Archibeque, president of the Montezuma County PERA association. I firmly believe they dont want a change to the PERA board. We hope and pray you continue to hear all sides of the issue.
Roberts responded that she has considered all angles of the PERA issues but believes in order for the fund to remain solvent, a change in leadership is necessary.
Im still trying to look at it from all sides, Roberts said. (House Bill) 1248 changes the board composition but keeps a majority of the board members as beneficiaries. That means six would not have a personal dog in the fight and would have a financial background to make wise decisions.
Brown added he doesnt know anyone at the state level who doesnt want to keep PERA solvent.
I know Ellen and I both work our heart and soul to keep (PERA) solvent and protect your rights, Brown said. We dont want that to be hurt, so we want to be real careful we do everything we can to keep it strong.
Members of the public also questioned the legislators regarding Gov. Hickenloopers proposed budget, which would slash funding for K-12 education by more than $300 million and would result in a $1.5 million cut at the local school district level.
Brown said he needs to take a closer look at the budget and is not certain what cuts have been proposed. Roberts acknowledged the dilemma involved in finding ways to fund the biggest portion of the state budget without hurting education.
As I said, we need to take a long-term view on the budget, Roberts said. The state has been taking on a bigger and bigger share of the K-12 money, and now the state is in deep trouble. This is a perfect storm, and there is no short-term fix. I think Gov. Hickenlooper has been very honest with people. I dont have a fix, and unfortunately, it is supposed to be worse next year.
Roberts and Brown encouraged members of the public to educate themselves on bills being proposed in the Legislature by visiting www.leg.state.co.us.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.