Colorado Democrats, now in control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, are trying to figure out how to achieve long-sought policy goals within the limits of the state budget and how to make those new programs sustainable during future economic downturns.
The two initiatives at the top of the Capitol wish list are full-day kindergarten and increased transportation funding. But the question of overall K-12 funding and how to pay for expanded probation and community corrections programs also are part of the financial debate.
A majority of kindergarten-age students now attend full day, paid for by a patchwork of some state money, local district funds and parent tuition. Funding varies by district (some are free for all). Unlike most states, kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Colorado—not even half-day. Gov. Jared Polis is proposing that the state pick up funding of full-day kindergarten for all children whose parents want it. That would cost about $227 million a year to start – plus another $25 million for district startup costs in the first year. Part of the debate about kindergarten will be whether to build the money into the overall school funding formula, where it would be harder to cut during a recession, or to put it in a separate account that could be suspended during hard times.
The Colorado Preschool Program offers preschool to four- and five-year-olds with economic and family risk factors. The program has never had enough funding for all eligible kids. A side effect of Polis’ kindergarten plan would increase preschool coverage. That’s because school districts now can use some state funding for either preschool or full-day kindergarten. If schools get new funding for kindergarten, then they’ll have more to spend on preschool. The governor’s plan also provides some additional new preschool funding.
Raising the amounts of money needed for serious transportation funding requires debt, like bonds, and that, in turn, requires a steady stream of revenue for two or three decades to pay off the bonds. Voters last November rejected raising taxes to pay off bonds. Republicans have suggested setting aside a portion of regular state revenues (called the General Fund) every year to pay off bonds. Democrats are considering various options, including whether to offer another plan to voters.
Democrats fear that committing to an annual bond payment without new revenue could squeeze education and other spending in a recession, when state revenues slow or decline. There’s added concern the squeeze would be more painful if the budget includes a new, ongoing obligation to kindergarten.