April in Colorado is always interesting with its wonderful sunny days followed by snow storms. And at the state legislature, April is when we finalize the annual budget and wrap up all of the unfinished business of the legislative session.
Perhaps the budget process doesn’t seem “interesting” to most Coloradans, but for me, it’s an expression of our priorities as a state. This year’s budget is responsible, balanced and represents Colorado’s values by investing in economic development, vital services like mental health and child welfare, and education, both K-12 and higher education. We are dedicating funds to rural economic development and tourism promotion, Colorado’s second largest industry. We are paying down outstanding debts on our Fire and Police Pension fund, and devoting the future interest savings to our state education fund. We are increasing our reserve to protect us from future economic downturns, and we are balancing the books. I am proud to have voted in support of this responsible approach, which received significant bipartisan support in the House. I’ll tell you more about some of the specific programs funded in this year’s budget, but I first want to highlight some good news.
POSITIVE ECONOMIC NEWS
Many of you have probably heard a lot about Vestas over the last year. Vestas is a Dutch wind turbine company with a tower factory in Pueblo that ended up reducing their workforce when Congress delayed the extension of the Wind Production Tax Credit last year.
Well, Vestas just received a large order to produce 166 wind power generators[CK1] for a wind project in Canada, which means the Puebloans employed at Vestas will have some work to do over the next few months. Vestas has not yet announced whether they will hire additional staff to complete the project, but I think we can all look at this as a positive sign that the economy is moving in the right direction.
Even so, there are still too many Coloradans looking for work, and we must do what we can at the legislature to support small businesses and train Colorado workers for the jobs of the future. That’s why I’m supporting our 2013 jobs agenda, which you can read about here.And that’s why I’m excited about our 2013 budget, which prioritizes education and economic development, along with public safety, mental health and child welfare.
COLORADO PRIORITIES IN OUR BUDGET
While we’re tackling many difficult issues this year, the number-one most important issue is jobs. Until every Coloradan who wants a job can find one, we will be focused on doing everything we can to accelerate economic growth in the private sector. This year’s budget makes smart investments to spur job creation, and build our local economy here in Pueblo County in three specific ways. First, we are providing$3 million for a new grant program to grow and diversify rural economies in communities that depend on a single large employer, such as a state prison.
Second, the budget adds nearly $2 million in tourism promotion to attract visitors from out of state to Colorado, where they can visit the Pueblo Riverwalk, the Colorado State Fair Grounds and Lake Pueblo. Every year, tourists spend more than $15 billion in Colorado, which supports 141,000 Colorado workers and brings in revenue to fund our schools and build and maintain our roads. The additional support for tourism promotion is a smart investment that gets a great return on investment for Colorado. As another part of our tourism promotion, the Colorado State Fair will see an increase in funding of more than $25,000 next year. This will directly impact Pueblo and help support our local economy.
Finally, we are investing $194 million in fixing our aging schools and other state buildings. This investment will create thousands of construction and maintenance jobs throughout the state. The Capital Development Committee has allocated $18 million for renovations to Colorado State University – Pueblo. This money will go towards improving general classrooms in various buildings, replacing the roof of the Arts and Music Building, and upgrading the HVAC Nursing Program wing. Pueblo Community College is getting just under $1 million for its campus. As for other state buildings, money has been provided for many projects in Pueblo. Money is going towards repairing and replacing the campus tunnel and utility infrastructure system at the Colorado Mental Health Institute, and we can begin repairing the roofs of the South and West Districts of the Youth Corrections facility.
Another of our top priorities is education, by supporting our kids now, we are building towards greater economic prosperity in the future. This year’s budget starts to chip away at the devastating cuts our schools received in recent years. The key to a robust 21-century economy is a well-educated and well-trained workforce. By investing in our children, we ensure Colorado’s future economy. We are increasing K-12 funding by $127.1 million and for the first time in nearly four years, we are actually putting money back into higher education. We put an additional $31 million to higher education operating funds and $5.3 million for financial aid. By 2018, a college degree or certificate will be required for 67% of all Colorado jobs, and this additional funding will help ensure our children are prepared for tomorrow’s economy.
This budget also prioritizes keepings Coloradans safe. The budget re-invests in our mental health and child welfare systems to ensure the safety of our children and Colorado’s most vulnerable citizens. The budget invests over $19 million in Colorado’s mental health system for improved access to mental health services. This money will be directed to expanding hospital capacity, enhancing Colorado’s crisis response system, establishing a single statewide mental health crisis hotline and improving local community care services. We also are working to improve on our child welfare system with substantial funding for initiatives. We are adding money for in-home support and preventative services. This will provide services for first-time mothers by expanding the Nurse Family Partnership program for preventatives services and other social services programs.
One part of the budget that is particularly important to me is that we are making good on our commitment to veterans by paying back the Veterans Trust Fund and increasing our Veterans services grants by $1 million. And last but not least, this budget will responsibly increase Colorado’s reserves by 25 percent to protect Colorado’s critical services from unforeseeable economic downturns. The budget was worked through in a bipartisan manner and had strong bipartisan support.
All in all, it’s a responsible, balanced budget that focuses our resources on proven programs to support job creation, education, and public safety.