What Just Happened? We Can’t “Just Prioritize”

Many commentators and legislators like to say Colorado’s only budgetary issue is we haven’t prioritized enough. It’s hard to take that argument seriously, especially when you dig into some of the bills that have been introduced this session.

One of the first bills this session from the Senate minority party — SB20-020 — sought to cut the state income tax rate. Colorado is already a low-tax state with a regressive tax system. It’s important to note the nonpartisan Legislative Council Service expected that bill to cut General Fund revenues by more than $300 million every year.

Another bill wants to divert existing General Fund dollars — specifically 10 percent of all sales and use tax revenue, which is currently about $350 million per year — to transportation. This bill would reduce the amount of money available to the legislature and deprive it of necessary choices on what to fund.

Combined, these two bills would reduce available General Fund dollars by more than $650 million into the future.

How do you “prioritize” funding without any money? Which programs would you cut to make the math work? These questions are never answered with these bills, because shouting “prioritization” is not a serious argument.

We already prioritize plenty. It’s why we have a state that’s growing economically, and yet still far behind in many important metrics. We can do more with new sources of revenue. Here are some reminders about where we are currently:

  • Colorado still has an IOU to K-12 education of more than $500 million a year
  • Our state has a $9 billion backlog of transportation projects throughout the state
  • Since 2000, funding of postsecondary education has gone from one-third tuition and two-thirds state funding to two-thirds tuition and one-third state funding

As we have documented in the past, the General Fund — the largest part of the budget made up of income, corporate, and sales and use taxes — is mostly spoken for due to commitments we have made and continue to make to education, health care, law enforcement, and the rest of the programs we know and rely on. Thanks to a run of good to great economic years recently, there have been more dollars than usual to plug some of Colorado’s holes, but there hasn’t been enough to fully shore up our eroding public programs. For that to happen, we will need more revenue injected into the General Fund.

And that’s why we have to reject false choices. We have to reject the idea we can’t pay for health care and education and transportation. We are a wealthy and growing state and we need to act like it. Telling Coloradans they can either have quality education with properly salaried teachers or safe roads and bridges isn’t a hard truth. It’s disingenuous, especially as many Coloradans must abandon the Colorado way of life as a result. We cannot and should not take these ideas at face value, especially as we ignore a simple solution: We can do more as a state and as individuals if we ask the wealthy to pay their fair share.

So what does “prioritize” really mean? Well, if we judge by actions, it clearly means we need to cut the rest of our budget to the bone and leave many Coloradans high and dry.