Partisan divide over the budget

The Colorado Statesman

What a difference a year makes.

Senate Democrats on Thursday pushed through the upper chamber a $20.5 billion budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, despite cries by Republicans of a premature and irresponsible spending agenda.

The 19-15 vote marks a clear departure from last year’s budget talks, when the Senate backed a bipartisan proposal that received a vote of 30-5. Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, was excused from the vote on Thursday.

The issue, as they say, “More money, more problems.”

An improving economy that has led to increased tax revenues has resulted in the first time since the beginning of the recession that lawmakers have extra resources to play with. A March revenue forecast hinted that the state could have as much as $1.8 billion left over by the end of 2014.

This year’s so-called “Long Bill,” which would take effect in July for Fiscal Year 2013-14, appropriates about $8.22 billion from the general fund, a spike of about $600 million, or 7.8 percent over the current budget.

The big winners this year would be:

• Health Care Policy and Financing — Increase of 60.2 percent, or about $174.6 million from the general fund;
• Education — Increase of 12.2 percent, or an estimated $83.9 million;

• Human services — Increase of 12 percent, or about $66.3 million; and

• Higher education — Increase of 7.2 percent, or an estimated $39.2 million.

Democrats applauded themselves for the budget proposal, noting funding for mental health services and the state’s troubled child welfare system, as well as for the elderly. They say education is beginning to be restored, though it remains about $1 billion underfunded because of recessionary pressures.

“I am under no illusion that after we pass this year’s budget, that somehow we’ve caught up on all of our financial and moral shortcomings on our obligation to those in the greatest need in the State of Colorado,” explained Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

“But I will say it is an extremely proud moment to be standing here today on the budget this year when we are finally increasing funding… for all of the kids in Colorado…” she continued.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver — chairman of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which crafts the Long Bill — also applauded his committee’s effort. He can’t understand why there is a partisan divide this year.

“This is my perspective on the three years that I’ve spent on the budget committee in comparing two years ago the kind of maneuvering and accounting gimmicks and cash fund raids it took to bring you a balanced budget that was dealing with the fiscal realities of the time… And I’ve contrasted for you all of the things we’re doing this year that I think are reasons to cheer…

“And yet two years ago the budget was wildly and bipartisanly popular when we did all of those things, and for some reason this year it is not,” he said.

The political climate at the legislature this year is drastically divided following heated debates on gun control, same-sex civil unions and reduced tuition rates for undocumented students. Lawmakers have also recently engaged in a controversial conversation on oil and gas regulation.

Republicans have been testy after Democrats regained control of the House this year, while maintaining the Senate and the governor’s mansion.

Spending worries GOP

Specifically, Republicans worry that much of the budget relies on one-time revenue sources, such as sudden stock sales. They also point out that the federal government is grappling with automatic spending cuts that force it to drastically cut funding to states. The GOP fears that the economy is only just recovering, and it could take another decline.

Concerns are so high that even the Joint Budget Committee has split down party lines. Usually the JBC sticks together as the driving force behind budget negotiations.

But as JBC member Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, explained in voting against the budget, he fears that the state is headed in the wrong direction.

“This budget is better than the federal government’s budget, it’s better than the budgets of California, Illinois, New York, and it’s even better than the budget of Washington, D.C.,” he opined to his colleagues.

“Unfortunately, what I see is a budget that’s heading towards the philosophies of those legislative bodies, it’s going in the wrong direction. And unfortunately, I think we’ll see this played out in future years.”

Republicans picked specific funding issues as well, such as the Colorado Energy Office, which received a scathing audit that outlined an inability to show cost-effectiveness. They attempted to pass an amendment to the budget on Wednesday that would have reduced funding to the office by 25 per-cent, but Democrats killed the proposal.

“The rumor is we have Friday off for Good Friday and Easter. I move perhaps we should just come in here instead, because we don’t need religion anymore for the answer to eternal life, it’s right here in Colorado, it’s called the Colorado Energy Office,” Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, quipped to a chamber full of laughter.

Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, came to the office’s defense: “They fixed nearly every problem that the auditor asked them to fix in a timely manner…” she retorted.

Republicans are also challenging a 2 percent salary increase for state employees, the first such raise they would receive in four years. The GOP fears that the increase was chosen arbitrarily, without taking into consideration full compensation, including benefits. They ran amendments that would have reduced the salary increase based on a more conservative analysis of pay surveys. But Democrats killed those proposals.

“The annual salary survey has consistently failed to include key comparisons on public employee compensation… We’re not looking at total compensation,” suggested Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

But Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, reminded her colleagues that state workers have been passed over for several years. She added that increased contributions to retirement accounts have reduced paychecks by 2.5 percent.

“We haven’t done justice by our state employees, who work very hard for us...” she said. “We have not done right by them, and this is an opportunity just to give them a little bit, and still not at the prevailing wage.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, said the budget debate is really about liberty and preservation. He supported a budgetary component that would raise the state reserve from 4 percent to 5 percent. But he said overall, the budget places an emphasis on spending, and not saving.

“Why must we always spend as much as we possibly can at all times, rather than truly work at limiting government?” he asked his colleagues. “That’s what our nation was founded on — was the concept that government doesn’t control the lives of the citizens. We the people, the citizens, are in charge of what governance is absolutely necessary.”

Amendments come flying

Lawmakers proposed about 30 amendments to the budget during second reading on Wednesday, much of which came from Republicans looking to curtail Democrats. The vast majority of the proposals were either killed, or withdrawn.

In addition to the amendments surrounding state workers and the energy office, several other failed proposals spawned debate, including:

• Expressing intent to prohibit welfare recipients from withdrawing cash assistance at ATMs located in casinos, strip clubs and liquor stores. Democratic leadership ruled that the amendment did not fit in the Long Bill, and so it died;

• Prohibiting the state from suing local governments over decisions on oil and gas regulation. Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, moved the amendment. He also proposed adding additional oil and gas inspectors, despite the budget already increasing the department by five inspectors;

• Barring the Attorney General’s office from using state money to file briefs in support of gay marriage arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats withdrew the amendment;

• Defunding the state’s background check program for firearm sales;

• Adding $2 million to a state fund that provides incentives for film production; and

• Three separate Republican amendments that would have reduced across-the-board spending by 5 percent, 1 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.

The Senate did agree on a handful of amendments, including:

• Adding $2.8 million to pay negligence claims for last year’s Lower North Fork Fire; and

• An additional $500,000 for youth hunting and fishing programs.

The Long Bill now heads to the House, where it is likely to face another furious debate and onslaught of amendments. Current amendments could be stripped by the time the bill is finalized.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com