By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The controversial effort to repeal Colorado’s revered General Fund spending limit, known as Arveschoug-Bird, was almost killed by House Republicans Monday. The effort, many later said, was the best political gamesmanship under the dome in years.
If passed, the bill would repeal the Arveschoug-Bird spending limit, a provision passed by the Legislature in 1991 that allows Colorado’s General Fund to grow by only 6 percent per year. Senate Bill 228 would, instead, link spending growth to 5 percent of the state’s personal income growth. It also sets up a rainy day fund for the state and guarantees funding for transportation under a compromise brokered by Gov. Bill Ritter.
But Republicans, led by House Minority Leader Rep. Mike May, of Parker, and Rep. Tom Massey, of Poncha Springs, attempted to bomb the bill by adding an amendment that changed Ritter’s proposal to dedicate funding earmarked for transportation to schools instead. The amendment passed 32-31 on Second Reading, with six Democrats crossing party lines to support it.
Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican amendment were Reps. Jack Pommer, of Boulder; Debbie Benefield, of Arvada; Jerry Frangas, of Denver; Wes McKinley, of Walsh; Judy Solano, of Brighton; and Nancy Todd, of Aurora.
Afterward, the Republicans pounced on the ruling party, saying their amendment showed that Democrats who claim the true intent of SB 228 is to ease budgeting practices and guarantee a dedicated stream of transportation funding have been dishonest from the beginning.
“If the bill is designed to secure transportation funding, why is it so easy for Republican lawmakers, with Democratic support, to shift the funds to schools?” they asked.
“It is extremely disingenuous for the Democrats to remove this spending cap under the guise of creating transportation funding,” May said afterward. “We proved today just how easy it is to siphon those so-called transportation dollars right out of the bill and put them wherever you want.”
After the vote, lobbyists in the hallway were buzzing about the crafty way Republicans were able to torpedo the bill. The very-well-read and Democratic-leaning Colorado Pols blog commented, “On a purely tactical level, we are forced to admit this was pretty good stuff. (May) got exactly what he wanted — which was really nothing more than a talking point — but he got it, and a few Democrats handed it to him guilelessly.”
Not to be overrun, a few hours later, House Democrats called a Committee of the Whole to reconsider the vote and reversed itself by a vote of 34-29. Democratic Reps. Frangas, McKinley, Solano and Todd changed their votes.
On Tuesday, when the bill came up for Third Reading, the House had a protracted floor debate. For nearly 90 minutes, Republicans took turns in the well blasting the legislation as irresponsible, bad government and unconstitutional — despite public statements by Republican Attorney General John Suthers declaring the legislation legal and defensible in court.
“Folks, its a sad day for the middle-class taxpayers in my district,” said Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument. “We’re so busy growing and growing government. When does it end?
Rep. Frank McNulty, an outspoken critic of the legislation, agreed.
“The bottom line is that this provision of law, I believe, is constitutionally protected and is supposed to protect taxpayers and Colorado’s working families who pay the bills that we use to fund programs that we (define),” McNulty said.
“So, what is this about? It’s about taking the limit off the growth of government and allowing it to grow unrestrained and taking away the limits of TABOR,” he continued. “And, there is no doubt in my mind that once this (bill) passes, getting rid of TABOR will fall within the sights.”
But supporters were stalwart in their defense of SB 228. Its sponsor, Republican Rep. Don Marostica, of Loveland, called out McNulty, specifically, for either not understanding the bill or intentionally confusing the argument by misrepresenting what it will do if passed.
Marostica, a Joint Budget Committee member, has argued from the beginning of the session that the “ratchet effect” of Arveschoug-Bird will become more painful for lawmakers in coming years and could flip the state budget on its head, creating the need for massive cuts in higher education, prisons and transportation.
“Senate Bill 228 does not increase taxes. Senate Bill 228 does not increase state revenue. Senate Bill 228 does not increase the size of government. Senate Bill 228 does not increase one more penny of spending,” Marostica said to Republicans who were claiming in one speech after another that it would do exactly that.
“Now, we have to be very careful, because a lot of people are saying those things over and over. And it’s not correct, and I can prove it analytically. And I can prove it in a way that, Representative McNulty, you can understand it,” Marostica continued.
Although Democratic support for SB 228 in the Senate was unanimous, the bill found some opposition among House Democrats.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, said she couldn’t understand why a bill aimed at undoing much of the restrictive budgeting language the Legislature is forced to work around each year imposes a new set of restrictions — in the case of SB 228, guaranteeing funding for transportation and the rainy day cash fund.
Curry then said she would have supported the Senate version of the bill but was unable to support Ritter’s compromise proposal.
“I thought that the intent of the bill was to give us the flexibility to come in here in January and (budget) the way that we see is best for the state,” Curry said.
“We had a clean bill that came across from the Senate, and I know it’s not just about pure policy down here…. But frankly this was our bill. This wasn’t about (Ritter), the lobbyists,” she continued. “This was about the Legislature making (budget) decisions based on what our priorities are. And we have given that up. I can’t support this.”
But other Democrats disagreed, saying good politics involves the art of compromise.
“Senate Bill 228 is not exactly what I would like to see,” said Democratic JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, of Denver.
“I would like to see us vote and get rid of the 6 percent limit and let us, as the General Assembly, vote to decide how we allocate the funds. But, as we all know, we don’t always get what we want,” he said. “We have to compromise, and we have to build coalitions in order to get things done. And that is what happened on this bill.”
When all of the dust had cleared and the debate had ended, the legislation passed the House, with Ritter’s compromise proposal intact, on Third Reading by a vote of 35-29-1.
The legislation now heads back to the Senate for approval of House amendments.