DENVER, Colorado " The Colorado House declared a fiscal emergency Thursday and tentatively approved a bipartisan package of bills to cut about $300 million from the state budget to avoid major cuts to higher education.
Lawmakers voted to ask the governor to force state employees to take up to eight furlough days in the fiscal year beginning July 1, cut provider rates for private prisons and medical providers, delay a major water project and raise tobacco taxes.
The budget faces a third reading before it goes back to the Senate for consideration of House amendments.
A two-thirds vote was required to declare a fiscal emergency so lawmakers could tap $30 million from tobacco tax revenues for health-related purposes.
The financial emergency declaration noted that "the national economy and the state's economy have contracted at rates not experienced since the Great Depression."
Lawmakers said strong measures were needed to cope with a projected $1 billion revenue shortfall in the 2009-2010 budget.
Legislative leaders said both sides had to make difficult choices to balance the budget as required by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which mandates voter approval for any tax increases.
"Working together, Democrats and Republicans crafted a sensible budget that protects our schools, keeps the doors to Colorado's colleges open, and will help put Colorado on the road to economic recovery," said House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver.
Minority Leader Mike May, a Republican from Parker, said, "While we might not agree on how every dollar is saved or spent, we do agree that with the future of the state on the line, it is time to put aside politics and make good policy. This is a balanced budget that tightens our belt and wisely trims the fat off our expenditures."
Among the tough choices was a decision to cut about $90 million from a senior property tax exemption, but lawmakers voted to exempt disabled veterans from the cuts.
Legislative leaders opted for budget cuts after members of the House Appropriations Committee concluded an alternate plan to take money from the state-created workers compensation insurance company's surplus could face significant delays because of legal challenges.
The new package of cuts spread the pain across state government, including $1 million from online library services, $27 million from local government grants and $5 million from tourism promotion.
The Senate version of the bill called for $300 million in cuts to higher education, which Gov. Bill Ritter rejected.
Ritter issued a statement earlier this week saying large cuts to state colleges and universities couldn't be allowed because it would cause the state to forfeit the entire $760 million it is getting under the federal stimulus package to restore budget cuts.
That's because a $300 million hit would drop higher education below 2005 spending levels in violation of the stimulus act.
Ritter must spend most of the $760 million in stimulus money under his control on higher education and kindergarten through 12th grade schools. He plans to spend $150 million on higher education in the next fiscal year, $50 million more than originally planned.