The $18 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning this summer was the biggest accomplishment of this year's Legislature, which finishes work next week.
The budget cuts $250 million in K-12 education, cuts other state agencies across the board, from prisons to colleges, and again takes drilling and mining taxes from local governments to balance the books.
Hickenlooper told a group of legislative budget writers who gathered to see the bill signed that the process was painful but necessary. As in most states, lawmakers can't spend more than the state is projected to make in taxes - so spending cuts are inevitable when the economy cools.
"I realize you had a big mountain to climb," Hickenlooper told lawmakers, referring to the state's half-billion dollar estimated shortfall because of declining tax receipts.
The budget cuts aren't quite as bad as originally predicted at the beginning of the year, thanks to better-then-expected tax collections. But Colorado's plan still ratchets back services already pared by budget cuts in previous years.
The budget means about $250 million less will go to support public schools. School districts around the state have warned that additional teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes and even the closure of some entire schools may be required next school year. More Colorado school districts are expected to charge for bus service, cut after-school activities and switch to four-day school weeks to save money.
The budget also calls for the closure of a state prison in Bent County and merges two parts of the Department of Natural Resources - the Division of Wildlife and Colorado State Parks. A few state parks may close.
State employees who manage to hang on to their jobs will feel the cuts, too. The spending plan requires state workers to again contribute more toward their pensions and forego raises. Lawmakers did back off one dip into state workers' pocketbooks, though, by rejecting a measure to lower mileage reimbursement rates amid spiking gas prices.
The budget does include some bragging points for lawmakers. Democrats managed to chip away at even deeper K-12 cuts originally proposed by Hickenlooper, and Republicans repealed two taxes they described as blocks to economic recovery - sales taxes on online software sales, and sales taxes on agricultural products such as fertilizers and animal medicine. The GOP also salvaged part of a retailer sales-tax rebate that Democrats wanted to suspend.
Hickenlooper lauded lawmakers for making what he called "the right compromises" to keep the state running.
"This is our job. We have to get this done, and it's very much appreciated," Hickenlooper said.
Lawmakers still have to clear some bills allowing the budget to take effect. For example, the state House still needs to declare a "fiscal emergency" so the state can tap into some pots of money they otherwise wouldn't be able to use.
"We trust that it'll get worked out" before lawmakers leave Denver, Hickenlooper said before handing to lawmakers the ceremonial pens he used to sign the budget.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)