All indications continue to suggest that Colorado is emerging from the recession ahead of the rest of the country. In just one day last week, the state’s economists reported that revenue estimates were almost a quarter of a billion dollars ahead of earlier projections; it was revealed that our share of national tourism spending had gone up for the first time in 20 years; and the value of oil produced in Colorado charged past natural gas revenues.
The most immediate beneficiaries of the new money will be Colorado’s children and the state’s future as an additional $59 million will be added to the state education fund now and prospects for more complete K-12 education funding appear rosy for the future.
But the broader picture of our state exiting the recession is good news for all of us. When Colorado’s economy was overly tied to extraction industries, we almost always lagged the country. Now that our economy is more diverse, we’re better able to overcome national trends.
As our economy, and state revenues, continue to recover, the legislature generally and the Joint Budget Committee specifically will have the difficult job of balancing competing interests of keeping sufficient money in the private sector to continue the recovery, restoring cuts to government programs made during the recession (even with the recent good news, state economists suggest we are still five years from recovering the losses we’ve incurred since 2008), and finding ways to increase our investments in woefully under funded areas such as higher education and transportation infrastructure and maintenance. These issues are even more difficult because of the structural problems that conflicting economic provisions placed in our state constitution by voters have caused.
The tension between restoring cuts and making additional investments presents both challenges and opportunities. The most significant challenges will involve evaluation of impacts of cuts in current programs and whether or not they need to be restored. Government agencies have had to do more with less, do things differently or stop providing some services. At the same time, we’ve seen some areas, primarily higher education, deprived of funds to the point that our very ability to prepare future generations to lead our state will be challenged.
Despite the fact that advocates for all programs that have suffered cuts will argue the need to restore funding before determining how to spend new revenues, it will be incumbent on the General Assembly to take a fresh look at all the state’s obligations and prioritize based on our collective needs prospectively.
When I worked in government, I used to say, “Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste,” because in bad times it is much easier to question long-term assumptions and make meaningful changes. It’s been pretty much a constant crisis over the last four years. Now that things are looking up, a fresh look at all of our collective interests and obligations will allow us not to let it go to waste.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.