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Can Colorado financially respond to COVID-19?

Colorado's director of the Office of Planning and Budgeting said Monday that there's no immediate concern about the ability to respond to the coronavirus.

DENVER — Imagine swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck in his vault, only to have all the coins disappear.

That's one way to look at the newest update Colorado lawmakers received Monday in a budget update.

Colorado lawmakers suspended their session on Saturday, at least until March 30, but the powerful Joint Budget Committee (JBC) is among the interim committees that can still meet.

The six members of the JBC craft the state's budget each year.

"I think some of us are a little bit stressed out about this right now," JBC Chairwoman Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, said during the meeting.

The JBC gets a quarterly update from both the governor's state office of planning and budgeting, as well as the legislative council staff that helps advise lawmakers.

Both wanted to point out the positives in the forecast.

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"I'd like to reassure folks that there is no immediate concern about available funds to respond to the Coronavirus crisis," said Lauren Larson, Director of the state's Office of Planning and Budgeting.

"Everyone take a little bit of a breather," said Kate Watkins, Chief Economist with Legislative Council Staff.

She pointed out the forecast could change with faster containment of COVID-19 and a stimulus package from the federal government.

Both revenue forecasts predict much less money than Gov. Jared Polis (D) originally budgeted.

Larson presented a budget with $274 million fewer dollars than Polis' budget requires.

Watkins predicted $800 million fewer dollars.

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"This is a good way to contextualize how much money you have to work with," Watkins said while showing a slide with the December 2019 forecast compared to March 2020.

The December 2019 slide showed the state with $832.5 million more dollars to play with for 2020-21 than it budgeted for 2019-20.

The March 2019 slide showed that number drop to $27.3 million.

"Essentially, holding your budget constant," said Watkins.

"It feels like the rug got pulled out from under us. We had these expectations. We had these plans going forward and now all of that is on the table, all of that needs to be revisited," Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. "Any new programs that were proposed will need to be revisited. We barely have enough money to afford current operations of state government."

The JBC was nearly ready to introduce the 2020-21 budget just as the session was temporarily adjourned on Saturday.

Now, the budget needs to be revisited.

"We are bound by statute, to actually increase certain programs by at least the rate of inflation, we heard today that there's not enough money to do that," said Moreno.

One of those programs is K-12 schools. The state is required by law to increase funding to schools based on inflation.

"We may either need to change state law or try to find the money elsewhere," said Moreno.

He did say that Polis' full-day kindergarten is likely safe because it was built into the budget as a recurring expenditure and not something that needs any of the new $27 million, $832 million or whatever the number really ends up being.

"I think the uncertainty creates the need to budget to a range, to have some contingencies in thinking through decisions," said Larson.

Another impact of the new forecast is that residents should no longer expect TABOR refunds in 2020-21 or 2021-22.

In November, voters rejected Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state to keep the money it has to refund to residents when it collects too much. That money would have gone to roads and schools. If the budget forecast remains the same, that money doesn't exist. There is no TABOR refund projected now until 2022-23.

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