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Reporters Should Keep It Simple: CDPHE Budget Increased Under Norton

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Jane Norton has been telling reporters she cut her own budget when she headed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

In an article Wednesday, The Denver Post set the record straight on Norton's CDPHE budget history, though some important information was left out. Lucky for you, I will provide it in this blog entry

Wednesday's Post story states that the general-fund portion of the CDPHE budget increased during Norton's first three years at the Dartment, and then it decreased in the last year, during a recession, from about $32 million to $16.2 million.

In an impressive bit of reporting, The Post quotes former state Sen. Dave Owen, a Republican who sat on the Joint Budget Committee when Norton headed CDPHE, as saying that Norton didn't cut the general-fund budget at the time. He says Gov. Bill Owens or the budget committee forced the cut on Norton.

But The Post rightfully points out that this hasn't stopped Norton from claiming, repeatedly, that she cut the general-fund budget significantly.

But even if you, as a reporter, think budget-maven Owen got it wrong, and you accept that Norton actually cut her general-fund budget during one of the four years she headed CDPHE, you still have to deal with the fact that, under Norton, the overall CDPHE budget rose.

In Wednesday's article, The Post should have stated more clearly, like reporters at 9News and Fox 31 did previously, that in addition to the general-fund part of the CDPHE budget, there are also two other portions: federal allocations and cash funds.

The Post reported, correctly, that federal allocations rose by $15 million under Norton. So it's clear from The Post piece that Norton did not cut the federal-allocations portion of her budget at all.

But The Post did not report that the "cash funds" portion of the CDPHE budget, which includes fees and fines, also rose under Norton from $56 million to $86 million.

So, if you count all three portions of the CDPHE budget (general fund, federal allocations, and cash funds), you find the overall CDPHE budget actually grew under Norton, as Fox 31 reported, starting at $226.5 million when Norton took over and finishing at $269.5 when she left.

It's the overall CDPHE budget numbers, which rose by over $40 million under Norton, that reporters should use to assess Norton's claim that she cut the CDPHE budget when she headed the agency.

Norton has argued that she only had control of the general-fund portion of the CDPHE budget.

But reporters shouldn't allow Norton to point to the general-fund portion of her budget, which Owen told The Post Norton didn't want to cut at the time anyway, and claim she has a record of budget cutting at CDPHE.

Norton had four years to find a way to cut the other parts of the CDPHE, the "cash" and "federal" portions. She didn't do it. She has claimed that she had no power to do this, but before believing her, a reporter, like a Tea Party activist, would want to see proof that she tried and failed to reject federal funds, and grants for example, or to fight for the reduction in revenue from fees and fines, revenue that she apparently did not complain about spending, as Department head.

I mean, no one recalls Norton complaining, like some governors have done regarding stimulus funding, that she was forced to spend the cash her department got from the feds. Ditto with the fines and fees. She didn't object to spending the money, as far as we know.

Clearly, a reasonable person can look at the facts about the CDPHE budget in different ways. 9News concluded that a Department head like Norton cannot claim to cut her budget, reporting that Norton's claim to have trimmed the CDPHE budget "isn't true" because she didn't have the power to do so. But in the end, the fairest way to cut through the clutter is to look at the bottom line.

If Norton continues to claim that she trimmed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's budget, or its general fund, reporters should inform us, simply, that under Norton the overall CDPHE budget actually increased. No dispute there.