- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Most of Colorado’s $25 billion budget for next year is already set in stone, but lawmakers got a chance to make minor tweaks before they gave preliminary approval to it Wednesday - the first step to sending it to the governor later this month.

The process started with a debate in the Senate, stretching into the evening with lawmakers considering nearly 50 amendments to try to move money around for pet projects or ideas they want to see funded.

Most of the amendments failed, and even those that succeeded still need final approval from the opposing chamber and legislative budget writers who go over the spending plan again to rectify any differences between the House and Senate.

The majority of the spending plan includes federal money lawmakers have little control over. Of the $25 billion, only about $9.6 billion is under their control, a pot of money called the general fund.

But even in the general fund, a lot of that tax money is already spoken for.

Two departments alone, Education and the agency that oversees Medicaid, receive about $6 billion in general funds, at $3.5 billion and $2.5 billion respectively. Other big chunks of the budget go to higher education, with nearly $857 billion, and prisons with about $780 million.

The state’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 reflects an improving economy.

The budget sets aside about $70 million for surplus tax refunds required under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. TABOR requires refunds when tax revenue exceeds the rate of inflation and population growth.

Because lawmakers must pass a balanced budget, proposed amendments are politically very tricky. Any extra money in one area requires a cut somewhere else.

Still, the budget debate and proposed amendments give lawmakers a chance to speak about their priorities. Among the notable amendments lawmakers considered Wednesday:

- Republicans proposed eliminating mandatory statewide tests for math and English. They said their plan would save the state about $16.9 million. However, Democrats countered schools will still be on the hook for the tests, but they just won’t be getting any money for them. The amendment was defeated.

- Democrats wanted $5 million to continue a birth-control program that gives low-income teenagers long-acting reversible contraception such as intrauterine devices. Republicans voted down the proposal.

- One amendment from Democrats didn’t include funding, but it would have added a footnote to the budget, encouraging the governor’s office to promote Colorado as a place where businesses can come to if they want to move “from states in which laws exist that permit discrimination.” It’s a response to Indiana’s new religious protection law. Republicans rejected the amendment.

After debating amendments, the Senate took a voice vote giving initial approval to the budget. They will take a final vote Thursday to pass the plan. Then next week it’s the House’s turn.

___

Ivan Moreno can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/IvanJourno


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