Hickenlooper unveils $24 billion budget

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Those dreaded DMV wait times and skyrocketing college costs could see some alleviation, under Gov. John Hickenlooper's proposed budget for next year.

The governor detailed a $24 billion budget — one that he called “equal parts of optimism and prudence” — during a presentation to a state legislative committee on Nov. 7.

As presented, the 2014-2015 budget includes increases in total funds and reserves compared to this year, an accomplishment that Hickenlooper attributes to a state economy that has now seen four consecutive years of growth since emerging from a recession.

“We have now exceeded pre-Great Recession peak employment levels and there are only a few numbers of states that have done that,” Hickenlooper told the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee. “This recovery puts Colorado's economy literally among the very best in the United States.”

Hickenlooper singled out four “high priority” areas that will receive special focus as part of next year's budget: “Education, customer service, health care and public safety.”

The proposed budget would cap higher education tuition growth at 6 percent. That would halt a five-year trend that has seen an average tuition rate grow 10 percent, according to Henry Sobanet, the governor's budget director.

The governor also proposes adding more than $40 million for college financial aid, which he called a “historic increase” for higher education funding.

“This budget request would allow more families to send kinds to college,” Hickenlooper told the committee.

The budget also proposes a $223 per-pupil increase for K-12 students next year. However, the governor acknowledged that the increase falls short of complying with Amendment 23 — the 2000 measure that reversed a trend where education funding was falling behind the rate of inflation.

The governor's budget does not include education dollars that would have come had Amendment 66 past last week. The tax hike for education funding measure was soundly defeated on Nov. 5.

Hickenlooper also seeks to revamp the Division of Motor Vehicles, though increased staffing and updated computer systems, which are a part of “long-overdue steps to modernize DMV.” The governor said that the increased funding would significantly reduce wait times for customers who seek services from the often-lampooned state division.

“One of the places where Coloradans most frequently interact with government and become aggravated is the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Hickenlooper said.

Various health care departments, including Human Services and Public Health and Environment, will see a combined $618 million increase through next year's proposed budget. And developmentally disabled persons are expected to experience shorter waiting lists for services that include assisted housing, through an additional $22 million in proposed funding.

The Department of Corrections — which Hickenlooper said is expected to deal with a 2.3 percent inmate increase — will also receive about $42 million in additional funding next year, about a 6 percent budget increase, much of which will go toward a parole division makeover and a fugitive apprehension unit.

The proposed budget also includes more money for savings. General fund reserves will increase to 6.5 percent, up from 5 percent this year. State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, praised Hickenlooper's efforts to increase reserve funds, especially in light of wildfire and flood disasters that have struck the state in recent years.

“I would give you the highest laudatory comments on the fact that we have stayed on that growth toward that state reserve, and we've needed it,” Lambert said.

And it wouldn't be a modern-day legislative committee hearing without there being some discussion of marijuana.

Hickenlooper said his office will measure economic impacts on retail pot sales that were made legal through last year's passage of Amendment 64. While acknowledging that the state is sometimes seen as being a marijuana mecca, the governor and Sobanet said Colorado could see positive economic impacts, as a result of the new industry.

“There are aspects about how it has tarnished our image around the country,” the governor said of the state's marijuana industry. “But it is going to have economic benefits.”

Sobanet said that the potential for a retail pot industry that has a “functioning regime” in place could bring great business benefits to the state, “once joking around about passing marijuana laws dies down.”

The budget also includes funding for marijuana health research, which comes from medical marijuana funding, a prospect that pleases Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

“Somebody needs to step up and start shining some light on these dark corners of neglected medical research,” he said.

The Legislature will take up Hickenlooper's proposed budget after it reconvenes in January.