The state Legislature has reached the halfway mark for the 2011 session, with a full agenda still in limbo.
"Clearly we still have the budget, we still have school finance, we still have redistricting, not to mention sundry other stuff," says Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. "The first half of the session is always the easy half. So we are getting ready for the big show. ...
"There is going to be lots of acrimony, and hopefully enough honest negotiations, because we have to end up with a budget and it has to be balanced. [But] getting from here to there is foggy."
As Morse notes, the most difficult negotiations will involve public-school funding. Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing a $375 million cut from K-through-12. That, says Morse, will "result in some school closures around the state and the elimination of some 6,000 teachers and other education-related jobs. That's not something that the Senate is going to say, 'Oh yeah, that's a good idea, let's do that.'
"I've heard some educators who are worried that we are going to lose a generation."
Morse promises that Democrats will work to bring that number down, "hopefully nowhere near $375 million. But even $150 million, which would be a huge coup if we could get it down that low, will result in closing schools throughout the state."
House Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, sees the cuts as necessary, and unsurprisingly, his view on the subject is less grim than Morse's. "Keep in mind that we are keeping money in the classrooms," says Waller. "This should not affect per-pupil funding by more than a little bit."
Waller estimates a $500 reduction to annual per-pupil spending; according to the Colorado Department of Education, 2008-09 numbers (the latest available) put Colorado's per-pupil spending at $7,992.
Looking at other money-saving measures, Waller emphasizes the need to close a Bent County prison, which Hickenlooper is evaluating right now.
"We have been working so hard on reducing the recidivism rate in the state of Colorado while protecting the public safety," Waller says. "We are to a point where we have 400 to 500 fewer prisoners than we had even two or three years ago. We can close a prison now, and we need to do that to operate more efficiently.
"I believe that we are going to have a reduction in government," he says, "and that means a reduction in state employees."
Closing that prison, according to the governor's projections, would amount to a few million dollars saved this year, with $6.3 million annually afterward.
The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute's analysis of the budget has concluded that Hickenlooper's proposed cuts could amount to "the loss of more than 3,600 jobs as services in education, mental health, prisons, health care and parks are scaled back. Most of the lost jobs will come out of classrooms and schools throughout the state."
All this cutting is exactly what the Republicans want, Morse says, but it could backfire "as kids go back to school in late August to classrooms that are 45 or 50 kids instead of 25 or 30 kids. Or the local school isn't there anymore. People are going to be outraged."
Coloradans' opinions on taxes, Morse hopes, might be more flexible next year after suffering these cuts and facing $500 million more coming in 2012.