The Grim Business Of State Budget Cuts Under Coronavirus Has Begun

May 12, 2020

Democratic State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger paused in her car, staring at the grey stone of the Legislative Services Building in downtown Denver before another all day meeting on Thursday. 

She and the rest of the Joint Budget Committee had been at it for three days already, the grim business of looking at proposals for cutting the state's budget. Today would be especially hard as they debated school funding.

"It's exhausting," she said, emotion seeping into her voice during a telephone interview. "I'm a teacher, I'm an educator, and today I'm going to have to cut programs in order to maintain base funding."

"We kind of have to cut off some fingers here to save the hand. So it's going to be really tough."

Two months after Colorado's first confirmed case of COVID-19, the state government's finances are rapidly spiraling into "worst nightmare" territory. With tax collections delayed, and economic recovery not yet on the horizon, the state's general fund -- the pot of discretionary money that lawmakers and the governor control -- is likely to take a huge hit.

The details started to come into focus last week as the select group of legislators on the powerful JBC debated how to rewrite next year's budget.

They may need to cut up to $3 billion of existing spending, about a quarter of existing general fund, and they'll remove hundreds of new spending proposals that had been drafted before the pandemic. For comparison, the state's general fund declined by about $1 billion during the Great Recession.

On Tuesday, the state's nonpartisan economic forecasters will give the committee an exact budget target. 

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