Dems hail progress, GOP decries taxes

By Jason Kosena

The 2009 legislative session offered large budget cuts, new fees and a whole lot of political wrangling. And, when it was over, both parties produced completely predictable reactions.

The Republicans talked about failed leadership, missed opportunities and a Democrat-controlled Legislature that was willing to “tax and spend” its way out of troubled economic times.

Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, looks out on Civic Center Park and the Denver City & County Building from the second floor balcony of the Capitol during a break in floor debate on the last day of the 2009 session. May, the House Minority Leader, mentioned the warm weather and how much he would like “to be driving around in my Z right now” as he peered over the edge.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Meanwhile, Democrats at a final wrap-up press conference on the Capitol’s West Steps Wednesday night happily puffed out their chests and declared success in their effort to drive home new policy during troubled economic times.

Neither party had many nice things to say about the other. But what else is new?

Led by outgoing Senate President Peter Groff and Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, Democrats pointed to a long list of accomplishments they believe demonstrate that 2009 was about more than cutting the budgets for this year and 2010 by nearly $1.5 billion. It also was about moving Colorado forward.

Touting FASTER as a new mechanism to fund transportation projects in Colorado, the hospital provider fee as a way to work toward better health care and a myriad of economic stimulus and jobs packages, Democrats asserted that the state is better off because they held the majority in the Legislature this year.

In addition, they boasted, they were able to repeal a number of outdated tax exemptions such as those placed on cigarettes and vending machine sales, won an important Supreme Court battle to uphold the 2007 mill-levy freeze, and freed the General Fund from the restrictive Arvoschoug-Bird 6 percent growth cap.

“Coloradans have always been used to hard work, and facing and making difficult decisions,” Groff said. “I’m proud to say we have faced and made those tough decisions this session. As I leave the Senate, I am proud to know the hard work we started this session will continue to lead Colorado forward.”

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, fixes Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll’s tie during a break in floor debate during the last day of the 2009 Legislature.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Carroll, who became Colorado’s first black speaker of the House in January, agreed with Groff.

“We promised to expand the circle of opportunity, and we have done that by saving and creating good jobs, providing support for struggling families, building a world-class education system and expanding the new energy economy,” Carroll said. “As we look back, our work is not done, but we have done more with less and are making clear progress.”

That depends on who you ask and how you measure progress.

Although this was the third
consecutive legislative session with Democrats controlling both chambers and the governor’s office, they didn’t get a lot of progressive policy off the ground.

Left on the chopping block in 2009 were bills that would have offered in-state tuition to some undocumented students who graduate from Colorado high schools and health care reform, including a bill that would make it illegal for insurance companies to give out bonuses to employees who repeal claims and one on prescription drug reform. Also pushed by Democrats but not passed was legislation to ban cell phone use in cars, a repeal of the death penalty, an attempt to add transparency to the selection process of higher education presidents and chancellors, and a major overhaul of the School Finance Act, which was watered down to nearly nothing in the House.

Democrats in Colorado’s House and Senate listen as outgoing Senate President Peter Groff outlines the achievements of 2009 legislative session.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

In addition, Democrats were left defeated after pushing hard to take $500 million from the asset base of Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-public workers’ comp provider, in order to balance the budget and replenish state reserves. Democrats pushed the bill through the Senate despite massive protests from small businesses, lobbyists, Republicans and a few in their own, only to learn that Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter would not support the move.

The ruling Democrats were forced instead to find revenue by repealing tax exemptions, including (temporarily) the Senior Homestead Exemption, among other tactics.

Republicans, who criticized Democrats for “feeing” their way out the fiscal mess, said their opponents had lost touch with reality in 2009.

“While people are suffering economically and during the worst downturn this country has seen in decades, the Democrats in this building thought it a good idea to add nearly $1 billion in new taxes and fees to the residents of this state,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

Although Republicans also had repealed tax exemptions, including the Senior Homestead Exemption, earlier this decade when they were forced to balance the budget, the GOP continued to criticize what it called the short-sighted and narrow view of Democrats not to put every option on the table.

Gov. Bill Ritter speaks with Rep. Judy Solano, D-Thornton, during a visit to the House of Representatives during the last day of the 2009 Legislature.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“The conservation easement (tax exemption) is one area where we could have gone for additional revenue instead of going after the senior citizens and elderly in this state who are on a fixed income and will really feel the pain of (the Democratic) policy decisions,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Mike May, R-Parker. “The Democrats said they were willing to put everything on the table, but the conservation easement exemption was never on the table. Ever.”

The conservation easement tax exemption pays landowners and developers an annual fee not to develop their property. Republicans argued that the current weak economy probably won’t allow developers to finance large-scale projects anyway, so repealing the easement exemption would have had little effect and saved seniors from footing the bill.

For his part, Ritter seemed happy with the accomplishments his office made in 2009 at the Statehouse. Touting a pages-long list of legislation that has passed and that he had signed into law, Ritter said FASTER and the Health Care Affordability Bill were the two accomplishments he values most.

Gov. Bill Ritter speaks to Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, on the House floor during the last day of the 2009 Legislature.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“Look, our agenda was passed through,” Ritter said during a round robin with reporters in his office on Thursday. “Moving the transportation bill was necessary, even if not in a bipartisan way, but we got that done, and we got it done with Republican support outside of the building, very prominent Republicans who said this was something the state needed. It’s those kinds of coalitions, similar to that which was built around Ref C. that we can look at and say we were successful with.”

Not everything was so cut and dry for Ritter, however.

As a former prosecutor who tried death penalty cases, Ritter steered clear of the death penalty issue while speaking with reporters on Thursday, saying he believes both sides of the issue have a right to bring their case to him without fear of being rejected because his stance is known.

When asked if he has a position on the death penalty, Ritter said “yes.” But when asked if he believed the people of Colorado have a right to know what that position is, he was mum.

“I’ve said all I am going to say on that,” he said.