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“The Murmuring Poor…”

March 7, 2003

“The murmuring poor, who will not fast in peace.” George Crabbe’s words are no doubt paraphrased in the thoughts of every Colorado legislator.

I’m sure there are many reasons for the Colorado state budget crisis, and I’m sure that at the end of the standard list — after greedy politicians, September 11, Saddam Hussein, Amendment 23, Gallagher, TABOR , aging demographics, drought, and fire — there is an Act of God, as well.

The obvious reason, though, is overspending. Or, it is overcommitment resulting from overestimating expected revenues. The estimation is the tricky business.

Governor Owens likely wishes the legislature were better at it, since many draconian cuts have fallen to him.

Here is part of the challenge: More than sixty percent of the state’s general fund budget is mandated by federal or state constitutional requirements — such expenditures as K-12 education, Medicaid, and property tax exemptions. Drastic cuts must be absorbed by less than half of the general fund, covering many small programs and departments.

Higher education takes another 13% of the budget, and corrections 8%. TABOR author Douglas Bruce would just as soon see higher education pay its own way, and frankly so would many higher ed people. If higher education became an “Enterprise” under TABOR rules, then it would be removed from the TABOR spending and revenue limits.

TABOR can’t be blamed for the current decline. Rather, it’s waiting in the shadows to kick us when we’re down. The inflexibility of TABOR will really tell in the coming years.

In particular, TABOR was designed with a ratchet effect to pull government exenditures down when it gets the chance. If Mr. Bruce is ever a happy man, it is probably right now.

I looked more closely at the budget crisis after hearing numbers and stories at recent state library meetings.

Take the case of an academic library, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s Denison Library, which is the premier resource for health care information in Colorado. By the end of the fiscal year, it will have lost six staff, cut hours by 25%, cancelled $425,000 in print journal subscriptions.

Plus — or rather, minus — $275,000 for university resource sharing from a discretionary fund that has lost all discretion.

Librarians have been examining scenarios of further cuts to imagine if there will be anything left of the resource sharing programs that have been in place for years.

There’s a double whammy in that every cut reduces the “maintenance of effort” required for federal library money, and so those funds are shrinking, too.

Is the state library important? When you consider that public library local funding alone (not counting Colorado school and academic libraries) totals $152 million, alloting 3% to measure and direct it is quite prudent.

The same trends that have hurt the state have affected counties and cities, as well, and so many public libraries are already in the same boat as academic libraries and the state library.

Library districts funded by property tax are buffered by a time lag in the way property values change. And Salida Regional Library has a little cushion in that, because of statutory constraints, we have never collected our new maximum property tax mill levy since it was approved in the 1995 election.

So, if property values level off or go down, we would have a few years of leeway for adjustment and planning versus a cold slap on the face.

We shall continue to work and plan, keeping in mind what Ben Franklin said: “He that lives on hope will die fasting.”

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