Colorado budget's $1.1 billion shortfall: Backseat Budgeter offers taste of task facing legislators

The Colorado Legislature is wrestling with dozens of messy problems, including that endless, ugly battle between convenience stores and liquor stores. But there is no problem messier than untangling the state budget.

Legislators have no choice but to deal with it: The state constitution requires that Colorado have a balanced budget, and the state is now looking at a billion-dollar shortfall for this year -- with at least $600 million having to be cut this legislative session.

Governor John Hickenlooper submitted his suggestions two weeks ago, with education taking a big hit. Senate president Brandon Shaffer gave Dems a deadline of Monday to come up with their own ideas. But the real work is up to the Joint Budget Committee, and yesterday senator Mary Hodge, the chair of the JBC, and representative Cheri Gerou, vice-chair, gave a taste of just how tough the task is when they joined a panel discussing the Backseat Budgeter.

The interactive, online tool was developed by Engaged Public, a public-policy firm, and Colorado State University's Bighorn Leadership Program; you can try it yourself at backseatbudgeter.com. It's a clever, if depressing, program, since when it lists options for possible cuts, it also points out the potential for lawsuits. And there's always that warning reminding you of the constitutional demand for a balanced budget -- a real annoyance when you're still hundreds of millions of dollars off.

Which could be why two-thirds of the audience test-driving the Backseat Budgeter ended their exercise by voting for Colorado to go to a graduated income-tax system that would generate $1.1 billion... the amount of the current shortfall.

But that's not an option for the JBC: Any tax increases must go to a vote of the people. And so, after their quick break, the two legislators headed back up the hill to continue crunching real numbers at the Capitol.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "3.2 beer was a way to get liquor quicker, but it's time to prohibit Prohibition beer."

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