Senate okays budget bill; now for the conference committee

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate on Friday approved its version of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year with much fewer fireworks and less drama than when the House debated the budget the week before.

The so-called “Long Bill” for Fiscal Year 2014-15 passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 26-8, with several Republicans opposing the spending measure because they believe more can be done to fund education especially.

But overall the debate in the Senate was less polarizing. In the House, every Republican voted against the budget except for Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who is a member of the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the budget. Gerou backed the spending proposal in an effort to stay united with her fellow JBC members.

In the Senate, all three members of the JBC backed the budget, including Republican Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs.

The Long Bill now heads to a conference committee to reconcile differences. As of Monday morning, legislative leaders had yet to schedule the joint confab. Much will hinge on a long list of bills still parked in Appropriations. Lawmakers are waiting to see what gets amended or killed.

Perhaps the greatest issue that will need to be reconciled concerns an amendment backed by the Senate that would add $21 million for an aerial firefighting fleet. Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, worked with Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, on the bipartisan amendment.

The amendment came following a recent report by the state’s chief wildfire officer that calls for increased support for aerial firefighting. The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention has encouraged the legislature to find the funding for exclusive-use contracts for four large helicopters, four single-engine air tankers and two spotter planes.

The report also calls for two large air tankers, but it does not make that a priority for this year.

King has been calling for the proposal for years. Last year he passed a bill authorizing the state to procure the fleet, but Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office didn’t come up with the money. King went back and forth with the governor on the issue, but Hickenlooper appeared keener on sharing a fleet with other states.

The report by Paul Cooke, director of the Division of Fire Prevention, offered clearer guidance on what the state should do about procuring a fleet, and the governor’s office has pledged to come up with $20 million to develop an aerial support system.

“What if we can prevent the next mega fire?” Cooke asked at a legislative presentation of the fire report. “That’s the goal that we developed our recommendation on.”

But at a budget briefing later with Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director, concerns were raised over how to secure the funding. The amendment proposed by King and Carroll would reduce health care and human services dollars by $16.5 million and take another $4.5 million from excess general fund reserves in order to fund the fleet.

Sobanet, however, believes that this funding stream is temporary. He explained that when the House and Senate meet to hash out differences, the money would likely come from a reserve for emergencies.

“The concern in the past was where were we on a cost-benefit analysis,” Sobanet said. “This study gave us the path forward. I think the issue is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“We don’t throw $20 million around lightly,” he added. “But in the context of the potential costs of the fire, getting ahead of it, the consensus is that this is a wise position for the state to take.”

In presenting his amendment to the Senate, King waved bottles of water and spoke about how fires contaminate drinking supplies in addition to destroying property and immediately taking lives.

In addition to running the amendment, King and Carroll are also moving a separate bill that would authorize the state to purchase, lease or contract for the use and operation of an aerial fleet. The measure offers more specifics than the measure from last year. Senate Bill 164 will be heard Thursday.

“This is the most important legislation of my life,” King said.

“Wildfires are a clear and present danger to the health and safety of Colorado citizens. Wildfires endanger Colorado’s economy, our infrastructure, our tourism, our agriculture and our quality of life…” he added. “For our children and for future generations of Coloradans — carpe diem, carpe diem — seize the day.”

Highlighting the bipartisan nature of the proposal was Carroll, who in the midst of differences between Republicans and Democrats over how to fund the $23 billion budget was able to put contention aside for the greater safety of the state.

“It’s not if we have another catastrophic wildfire, it’s when. It’s how many, how bad, how damaging. Because this is ultimately an investment in protecting Colorado’s water and protecting Colorado lives, Colorado homes, property, wildlife and natural space, and the lives and safety of firefighters on the ground who are doing the work to try to protect people’s property and water.”

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, has also pledged his support for funding an aerial fleet, which bodes well for the amendment during reconciliation talks.

Education

While there was large consensus on fighting fires, education conversations in the Senate have been less unified.

Republicans used the budget debate as an opportunity to assail Democrats for not doing more to fund K-12 and higher education, while also taking a stab at rolling back testing standards.

The focus was on so-called “Common Core” initiatives, or standards for K-12 education, including requirements in math and language arts at each grade level. Critics of the standards suggest that they are expensive, onerous and force teachers to teach to the test.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, led the conversations in the Senate, attempting several amendments to roll back the funding for Common Core. All the amendments failed.

“What do tests have to do with education?” asked Marble. “Not a whole lot when you’re looking at assessments. That’s the problem. We’re changing our definition of education. Our new definition of education is assessment.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, focused on education funding. He attempted to pass several amendments that would have reduced funding from other areas of the budget in order to continue to buy-down the so-called “negative factor.”

Pending Legislation would add an estimated $263 million to K-12, including reducing the negative factor by $100 million. But the GOP believes more can be done.

“You have to tell yourself that we’re taking money out of K-12… We’re shorting ourselves. We are shorting the entire system. We’re shorting everyone in the education system…” opined Cadman.

But Democrats pointed out that the budget itself would add $100 million to colleges for financial aid and limiting tuition increases. It also would add money for per-student spending at public schools in an effort to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth.

“I question the wisdom of just pulling the money out for something that we’ve already committed to in statute,” explained Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a member of the JBC.

“These are amendments marketing themselves as impacting the negative factor, but you’re actually amending the wrong bill,” he added.

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, couldn’t believe Republicans accused Democrats of not dedicating themselves to education funding. Heath has long championed for more education funding, including leading initiatives to raise taxes for K-12 education, which has been opposed by Republicans.

“I’m standing up here literally shaking,” said Heath, who is 76 years old. “I’m the oldest man in this room and the only reason I’m here is education, and I think everyone knows that.

“To stand up here and say we do not have a commitment to education burns me up,” he added. “I resent that; we should all resent that. This state needs to recommit to education at all levels…”

GOP takes stab at federal issues

In addition to education, Republicans also attacked Democrats on health care reform and immigration policy. Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, led this part of the debate.

He ran an amendment that would have added $175,000 to audit the state health care exchange. Republicans had hoped to accomplish this through separate legislation this year, but Democrats shot down the proposal.

“What are we afraid of?” asked Lundberg. “Why are we continuing to keep a veil over this entire issue when this is one of the biggest controversies… in America?”

He argued similarly for cracking down on “criminal aliens,” moving an amendment that would have pressured the federal government to increase its share to Colorado for incarcerating criminal aliens and asked the feds for full reimbursement.

“It’s not the end of the road, it’s just the beginning,” explained Lundberg. “And if you want to talk about budget impact, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that should be addressed by the federal government’s responsibility that they have incurred through their immigration policies.”

Democrats ruled the amendment out of order: “What does it mean for the department to pursue full reimbursement?” asked Steadman. “If the department were to pursue this, would that mean hiring lobbyists to lobby Congress… That’s what it sounds like.”

Legislators praise the passage of Long Bill

But despite the few squabbles, overall senators left the chamber feeling satisfied with the work they accomplished. It offered an opportunity for lawmakers to demonstrate the bipartisan effort that went into crafting the budget.

Long Bill debates can be just that — long. To pass the time, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle often engage in some horseplay. In the Senate, they started a pool for how long the Long Bill debate would last on Thursday. Lambert won with his guess of 6:35 p.m.

Senators also played a game of “budget bingo,” selecting catchwords like “Obamacare,” “negative factor” and “war on rural Colorado.”

“This is the result of a lot of technical work and examination of every department in the state, and considering we do have limited resources… there are a lot of tough decisions to be made,” explained Lambert.

“This is a budget… I hope you can be proud of,” added Steadman. “It’s a product of a lot of work to make sure that we are proposing a budget that meets Colorado’s needs…”

“The budget is the one piece of legislation we pass every year that affects multiple aspects of Coloradans’ lives, from education and affordable child care, to transportation and public safety,” added Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, a member of the JBC. “We have made investments that will help us to continue to recover after the recession.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com