- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

DENVER (AP) - Colorado’s depressed energy sector has led to a dip in estimated tax collections, meaning lawmakers will have to continue wrangling over tax refunds and paying for roads and schools this legislative session, according to revenue forecasts released Friday by legislative and administration analysts.

Colorado will balance its books next fiscal year, as it must under the state constitution, but the question remains: Can this fast-growing state keep funding those roads and schools in the future under a maze of directives that sometimes mandate all-or-nothing roads spending, hamper schools funding and sometimes require taxpayer refunds in years both good and bad?

“One year at a time, we’re able to make a budget,” said Henry Sobanet, director of the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, after he presented lawmakers a quarterly forecast that didn’t vary much from another delivered by legislative experts. Lawmakers use the forecasts to complete their budget work for the fiscal year starting July 1.

“The question is, do we have the structure we want with these automatic formulas impacting roads and schools? Will the legislature make any changes?”

The answer, for this split legislature, is no.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper opened the session warning of dire consequences for schools and roads if $750 million coming from the provider fee, which is paid by hospitals to get matching federal Medicaid dollars, wasn’t removed from state revenue that could trigger tax refunds under the constitutional spending limit known as TABOR.

Republicans who control the Senate are adamant that the state spend what it has and that Coloradans get their refunds.

“There has not been an urgency on this (fee), and if we’re having a recession, it’s not the time to keep increasing taxes on taxpayers,” GOP Sen. Kent Lambert, vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said Friday.

Lambert was referring to Colorado’s depressed energy sector, which has seen thousands of layoffs because of low oil and gas prices.

Both reports issued Friday forecast moderate job, economic and general revenue fund growth in other sectors in 2016.

Chief legislative economist Natalie Mullis forecast a $111 million drop in revenue for fiscal year 2016-2017, which begins July 1. But she said that’s offset by budget cuts already adopted by lawmakers. Sobanet’s estimate was slightly more, at $114 million.

Other key findings:

- Mullis’ analysts project $60 million in taxpayer refunds in 2016-17; Sobanet’s, $169 million. Individual refunds could range from $31 to $98 under the latter. Lower-wage earners could get an earned income tax credit.

- State transportation funding partly depends on how TABOR is implemented each year. Legislative analysts predict TABOR will have no impact on $263 million in roads spending, up from $249 million now. The administration says TABOR could cut roads funding in half. Including federal dollars, the state Department of Transportation has a $1.4 billion budget largely devoted to maintenance.

- School spending from the general fund is expected to be $572 million, up from $547 million in the current year.

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