Lynn Bartels, Joey Bunch and John Frank ---- The Denver Post
A big question this legislative session in Colorado will focus on is how lawmakers deal with robust tax collections under the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a constitutional cap on tax revenue. The most recent fiscal forecast shows the potential for a refund for taxpayers in the 2015 tax year — a year earlier than the 2016 tax break lawmakers were expecting.
The tax refund may reach $200 million for 2015 and $187 million the next year, state forecasts show. The refunds would come even as state priorities — particularly education — continue to lag behind prerecession spending levels.
The conundrum will force lawmakers to choose. Senate Republican leaders are pushing for a refund, and House Democratic leaders are considering a move to keep the money. In addition, lawmakers will need to figure out how to handle a potential refund of marijuana tax money this year.
Gov. John Hickenlooper
Standing between a Republican state Senate and a Democratic state House is Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat looking to return to his middle-of-the-road political roots. The prior two years, a Democratic-dominated legislature pushed the former Denver mayor to the left, but a split General Assembly this term is widely expected to help insulate him from overly partisan decisions.
In his second term, Hickenlooper is expected to continue his focus on the economy, but whether he outlines a more ambitious agenda — one with potential legacy touches — remains a question. It's also unclear where, if anywhere, Hickenlooper takes his political future next as speculation about a potential national post or bid for higher office remains alive.
Funding for K-12 and higher education accounts for almost half of the general budget, so education is always a major issue. But two hot-button issues also are expected to dominate.
One is the "negative factor," the issue of how the state repays and restores cuts to education made during tough years in the past decade. Lawmakers in 2014 gave an additional $110 million to K-12, and Hickenlooper has proposed an additional $200 million one-time payment to reduce the negative factor, which has hurt rural schools in particular.