By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado legislative leaders hope to avoid one of the most contentious issues in the 2011 session — redistricting — by putting the process into the hands of a 10-member joint select committee that will solicit input from Colorado citizens on the next congressional district boundaries.
The leadership of the Colorado General Assembly used a press forum on the 2011 session to announce the bipartisan 10-member committee. House Minority Leader Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, said that putting the initial redistricting discussions into the hands of the select committee would take “one of the most partisan topics [for the 2011 session] off the table” and allow legislators to focus on the session’s top priority, job creation. The Thursday forum is an annual event sponsored by the Colorado Press Association.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said the select committee will meet at least once in each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. It will be made up of five Democrats and five Republican legislators, and will have co-chairs from each party. Census data that will determine the number of congressional seats from the state won’t be available until late February or early March, Shaffer said, so initially the select committee will meet with citizens to get input and opinions.
“This is a remarkable opportunity,” said Speaker of the House-elect Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. He said the goal in setting up the committee is to take “the heat and politics” out of one of the most partisan issues at the capitol, draw congressional boundaries that are “fair and transparent” and allow legislators to get on with the business of working for the people of the state.
Legislative leaders hope that allowing the select committee to deal with redistricting will avoid a repeat of the legal battle that took place after the 2000 census. The process ended up in the Colorado Supreme Court after a divided 2002 Legislature failed to agree on maps, and the 2003 Republican-dominated General Assembly engaged in a controversial last-minute redrawing of the maps. The Colorado high court eventually threw out the 2003 maps and came up with its own. “Citizens want a fair and open process with competitive districts,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, adding that gerrymandered districts “try the public’s trust.”
Pace pointed out that voters in November gave the General Assembly a “mandate for bipartisan control” and that means a bipartisan solution on redistricting.
The select committee is to make its recommendations to the General Assembly by April 14, and Shaffer said he wants to see the redistricting legislation done before the session’s scheduled end on May 11. Committee appointments will be announced next week.
“We’re taking a chance” on this, said McNulty. Kopp said that the leaders had spoken to some of the state’s congressional delegation, and said they understand that it’s the legislature’s prerogative to draw the maps. “I don’t get a sense they’re hovering over our shoulders. They just want to be sure there’s fairness in the process.”
One issue Republicans will have to tackle is how to deal with the American Constitution Party. Based on its showing in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election, the ACP is now a major party, and although the party has no representatives at the state capitol, most of the Republicans in the General Assembly endorsed its gubernatorial candidate, Tom Tancredo. McNulty told The Colorado Statesman that while the select committee will not have ACP representation, the committee’s members will solicit input from all political parties.
Legislative leaders also spoke about their agendas for the 2011 session, trying to stick to the bipartisan feeling. “Nothing will get done unless the two parties can bridge their ideological differences and find common ground on budget priorities and related issues,” Kopp said.
That feel-good spirit temporarily dissolved when a high school journalist asked them about the biggest issues facing K-12 education, and McNulty launched into an attack on the Colorado Education Association. The biggest barrier to K12 education, he said, is the “public employees union. They don’t stand for students.”
McNulty said that Republicans point out that unions are out to protect their own interests, and Democrats counter by saying Republicans attack teachers. “The proof is in the action,” he said. When legislative leaders from both parties stood up and said the state could do better with SB 10-191, “who opposed it? The teachers’ union,” McNulty said.
Shaffer countered the Republicans’ charges, pointing out that his wife is a teacher and board member of the CEA, and their number one issue is children in the classroom and how to improve the quality of education. “I don’t think Mike or Frank understand the CEA or what local associations do in their districts. If they did, they wouldn’t be making those statements.”
Shaffer said the first bill he intends to introduce in the 2011 session is on making education funding a priority. He said his bill would create a check-off on state income tax forms to allow contributions to education, from pre-school through higher ed. He also said his agenda for the session is to ask legislators to look at every decision made in the session, and ask the question, what is the higher value — funding education or the project in the bill. The way “to grow the economy and create jobs is to invest in the education system,” he said.
Jobs are also among McNulty’s top priorities for next year, and both parties need to find ways to agree on how to move the economy forward. He said Republicans intend to make a “sincere effort” on bipartisanship; there would be times “when Republicans and Democrats disagree, but our focus will be to find those areas of common ground.”
McNulty said he is looking forward to working with the businesses that create jobs, having an education system that is “flexible,” a strong transportation system, low taxes, and a fair regulatory system rather than the one that he said is a burden to employers and has driven investment out of the state. “We will be bold in our suggestions and ideas.”
Kopp’s priorities for the session include promoting a jobs-friendly economy, addressing taxation and regulation, and establishing a “taxpayer-focused set of budget priorities.” He sais he intends to introduce a bill similar to one he sponsored in 2010 that would set up a task force that will create “a blueprint for streamlined government.”
Kopp said the budget is not based on the core functions of government ranked in a priority order, and in a “time of forced austerity, we need to focus on the core functions… The state can no longer indulge the pet projects.”
Pace’s priorities include legislation that will foster a strong environment for small- and medium-sized business and continuing to invest in clean and green energy. He also plans to sponsor a “pay as you go” bill that would require legislators whose bills carry a fiscal note to find the money to pay for it. “We have to be honest about offsetting new spending with cuts,” Pace sad.
Republicans also said they intend to go after at least some of the so-called “dirty dozen” tax bills that came out of the 2010 session. “We need to repeal as many as we can,” said Kopp. But Shaffer dismissed the idea, saying that the higher value is to invest in education rather than looking at an incentive for a specific industry. “Education will win every time in my book,” he said. Pace added that if Republicans can show that the exemptions are harming business and how they would pay for the revenues lost if the exemptions were reversed, Democrats “will be happy to have those discussions.” He also warned Republicans that such a discussion would break the bipartisan spirit. “It would be a shame to start off the session with acrimonious partisan bickering when we have a real opportunity to work in a bipartisan fashion.”
A new session, a new governor
Legislators hope to get off on a better foot with the new governor than they did with the previous one. Kopp said he had met with Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper twice and said they would attempt to communicate “excessively.” Shaffer said he had shared a handout on Senate Democrat legislative bills with the incoming governor, which he called “a courtesy” to ensure that they don’t have the same communication issues with Hickenlooper that they had with Gov. Bill Ritter in his first year in office. The relationship with the new governor will be very constructive, he said. “I think he will be a good herder of cats.”
Hickenlooper also addressed the press during the forum, discussing the state budget, regulation and red tape, job creation and the economy. While he said he wants to see more efficiencies in state government, efficiencies alone are not enough to close the $1.1 billion budget gap. “There is no hidden pool of money in the state budget. We have to be direct — there is no immediate short-term solution and we won’t turn around a recession of this magnitude in a couple of months.”
He predicted there could be more budget cuts to higher education, and possibly to K-12, Medicaid and transportation. The legislature will have to decide on its core values and priorities, he said. “If we believe kids and the ‘last and least’ are the highest priority, how do we balance cuts in such a way that we create the greatest level of opportunity and protect kids, and let other things slide for a year or two?”
Hickenlooper said part of the solution is to become more pro-business and “to hold ourselves to a different set of standards than any other state.” Being pro-business means defining the difference between appropriate regulation and red tape, he said. On taxes, Hickenlooper said despite a recent report that said the state should ask voters for a tax increase to fund higher education, he couldn’t see making that request in this economy.
Hickenlooper also said he would like to make an endorsement about the Denver’s mayor’s race, although he has been advised against it. “Who knows the job better than I do?” he said. “Shouldn’t I express my opinion?”