DENVER — For the first time in many years, Colorado government finds itself in a position of having to return tax revenue to voters.
A final decision won't be made for months, but Gov. John Hickenlooper made it clear to lawmakers on Wednesday that he doesn't think voters are willing to let government keep money above the limit set by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, even if areas of the budget can use the funding.
The refunds are required when state revenue exceeds the combined rate of inflation and population growth. Hickenlooper's proposed budget sets aside nearly $137 million to be returned to taxpayers in 2016.
"There is a serious resistance in the public to providing more funding to different state agencies unless they can be more fully assured that that funding will go to serve a specific purpose that they believe in," Hickenlooper said, responding to a question from Denver Democratic state Sen. Pat Steadman, a state budget writer.
Steadman had asked whether it made sense to return money to residents when the economy is rebounding and public schools have yet to recover the nearly $1 billion in cuts that lawmakers made to balance the budget during the recession.
Hickenlooper unveiled his proposed budget last week and presented it to budget writers on Wednesday. Lawmakers are expected to get an earful during the session that begins in January from interest groups wanting the state to keep the money to replenish recession-era cuts.
To keep revenue above the limit set by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, lawmakers must pose the question to voters. The last such refunds happened about a decade ago because of a combination of slow economic growth and a voter-approved time-out from reimbursements.
The full Colorado Legislature will make tweaks to the budget and vote on it in the spring.
Other budget highlights include:
— Increasing money to public schools to raise per-pupil funding by $475.58 to $7,496.28.
— Nearly $73 million for pay raises and health insurance aid to state employees.
— $281.6 million to finish capital construction and information technology projects. That includes $52.4 million to upgrade technology and reduce wait times at the department of motor vehicles.
— $8.2 million to hire 130 child welfare caseworkers at counties statewide, an attempt to address heavy workloads.
In all, the state budget is nearly $27 billion when it includes federal funds and other money lawmakers don't control.
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