El Paso County legislators end session with sigh of relief

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — Facing massive challenges — none more daunting than covering the state budget shortfall — legislative members of the El Paso County delegation vented views. Though the eight Republicans rarely agree with their three Democratic peers, Democratic Sen. John Morse and Republican Marsha Looper summed up the session in the same single word — “challenging.”

Republicans chose the following:

“Troublesome,” said Sen. Dave Schultheis.

“Disappointing,” lamented Sen. Keith King.

“Tough!” exclaimed Rep. Amy Stephens, the House Minority Caucus Chair.

“Frustrating!” fumed Rep. Larry Liston.

“Budget,” said Rep. Mark Waller.

“The economy,” said Rep. Kent Lambert.

“Broke — I mean flat broke!” proclaimed Rep. Bob Gardner.

Gardner said balancing and passing the budget was a major accomplishment, but “the Democrats may well have left a shortfall that is not yet apparent.”

Several Republicans agreed with Gardner — and the answer may be better known when the June 20 financial reports for the state land on Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk. Some predict a shortfall will call the legislators back for a special session to reconcile the budget.

The delegation shared the following highlights with The Colorado Statesman. Sen. Bill Cadman didn’t respond because he’s on vacation. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Dennis Apuan said he’d respond in emails, but didn’t. Rep. Michael Merrifield is on a bicycling trip to Utah — and reported encountering a bear attempting to break into his hotel room in Gunnison.

The delegation members’ views differ vastly on the bipartisan approach to finding budget solutions to passing bills.

“I think Republicans define bipartisanship as agreeing with their philosophy,” said Morse. “Under that definition it cannot ever happen. However, I think a quick comparison of a bill sponsored in one chamber by a Democrat and in the other by a Republican would reveal that under Democratic leadership many more such bills are introduced and many become law than was ever true under Republican leadership. Isn’t that a better definition of bipartisan?”

“This was perhaps the MOST partisan session of my nine years at the legislature,” said Schultheis. “Democrats refused to cut programs to balance the budget and instead robbed cash funds throughout the state and raised fees totaling hundreds of millions of dollars on nearly everything.”

“The session was not bipartisan — in fact, it was quite partisan,” said Stephens. “I think this pertains mostly to the large issues tackled in this session. The FASTER bill is a good example as well as Senate Bill 228 and House Bill 1170, regarding unemployment benefits and a hospital fee, respectively. The one issue that the House was particularly bipartisan was the long bill — we made good progress in that area.”

“The Democrats were initially receptive to the Republicans’ ideas about the FASTER bill,” said Liston. “We thought we had a bipartisan deal, but when the proposed bill returned from Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, it was a NO deal!”

“Bipartisan only existed when it was in the perceived best interest of the majority party,” said Gardner. “There was a lot of bipartisan lip service and a search for Republican cosponsors on bills in order to try and get top cover. But the fact was that the Democratic majority did not need Republican votes in most cases ... House Republicans were able to force significant changes in the structure of the budget ... Having said that, the House was not as rancorous and legislators did, as always, work across the aisle to create consensus when it was both necessary and possible to do so.”

“There was very little bipartisan effort regarding most spending and revenue generating bills. FASTER passed with very little Republican support,” said Waller. “…The budget was a more bipartisan effort.”

“There was a bipartisan approach to the budget, however, the bipartisan solving approach to setting good public policy was thrown out the door with the FASTER bill and all of the union bills,” said Looper.

“When against the wall with nowhere to go, the majority accepted some excellent Republican proposals for balancing the budget without Pinnacol (money from the Colorado Workers Compensation fund) or higher education cuts,” said Lambert.

The upshot and buckshot on the delegation’s bills:

Morse said the most important bill that he sponsored and passed was Senate Bill 228, “allowing flexibility in creating the state’s general fund budget.”

The bill provides a mechanism for the state to create a “rainy day” reserve fund. The measure replaces the Arveschoug-Bird measure, which set a 6 percent limit in General Fund allocation formula, with a 5 percent personal income limit that is tied to the economy.

Several of the delegation’s Republican legislators endured heartburn over the bill.

“The bill provides the mechanism for out of control spending without the necessary restrictions, complicated formulas triggered by 5 percent personal growth income, and will jeopardize transportation funding,” said Looper, who listed it as the bill having the greatest negative impact on Colorado citizens.

“For a decade and a half the spending limit has been effective in limiting the growth of government programs,” said Gardner. “Its repeal will allow government programs to grow and take ever greater amounts of funding from transportation and capital construction.”

As for hitting homeruns with bills, Looper scored — despite being a Republican.

“Yes, I had a great year!” exclaimed Looper. “I believe it’s important to work with a coalition of stakeholders and supporters on both sides of the aisle.”

Perhaps her most significant bill was Senate Bill 141, which creates the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District that spans through El Paso County into Pueblo County. The district will allow both counties a means to resolve complex water and drainage issues, and receive grants as a state-designated watershed authority.

When Gov. Ritter signed the bill into law on April 10, he remarked, “This represents an incredible collaborative accomplishment between two counties over an extremely contentious issue.”

What bills generated the most phone calls, letters and e-mails from constituents?

“My constituents opposed the in-state tuition to illegal aliens and the National Popular Vote that would have caused Colorado’s electoral votes to be given to the presidential candidate acquiring the greatest number of votes nationwide,” said Schultheis, noting that both bills were sponsored by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver.

“The liquor bill,” replied Stephens. The bill sought to allow liquor sales in grocery stores, but died.

Most of the Republican legislators said their constituents opposed the liquor sales bill as well as measures to raise the limit on medical malpractice laws, basing the electoral college on popular vote, and repealing the death penalty.

King said his constitutions loudly opposed “instate college tuition for illegals” — a bill that failed.

“It had to the ‘chaining of dogs’ in Colorado,” said Gardner. “It sounds strange, but I and everyone else received hundreds and hundreds of blast emails from pet lovers urging the legislature to pass more stringent laws on the chaining of dogs.”

Outside of “blast emails” generated by special interest groups or organized citizens, Gardner said his constituents were concerned about the budget and the FASTER bill that increases vehicle registration fees and provides an avenue to tolling roads and bridges.

How will your constituents view the legislative session?

“I think most will be pleased,” said Morse.

My constituents are almost universally glad that we are done so that the legislature can’t do any more damage by adding more fees or passing more laws or regulating them or their businesses,” said Gardner.

“The results will become more clear when they encounter the numerous and substantial fee increases. Then, they’ll begin to realize that this legislative session dug deeply into their pockets,” said Schultheis.

Many of my constituents will be disappointed as they realize that fees were increased but the state budget wasn’t cut — it’s an $18 billion budget which includes hiring 1,400 new state employees!” exclaimed Liston.

“My constituents will view it as tax and spend,” predicted King.

“Very contentious and very bad for citizens’ rights,” said Lambert.

“Unhappy over all of the new fees,” said Waller.

“As a session of unprecedented fees on the citizens of Colorado in a time of recession,” said Stephens.

After the grueling session, any escape plans?

“My escape from all things political is to watch my son play baseball — and I love it!” said Stephens. “We’re headed to Arizona to watch him play in the Colorado Junior Olympic 16 and under games in June.”

“Yes, home to Calhan!” said Looper with a smile and a sigh.

“Spending time at our cabin in Cuchara, a community nestled between the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains,” said Liston. “We’ll also pop into the local joint, the Dog Bar & Grill which originally had a resident St. Bernard until dogs were banned by the health department!”

“Spending significant time with my family, wife, children and grandchildren,” said Schultheis.

“My law office,” said Gardner.

“I went to Las Vegas for the weekend right after the end of the session,” said Morse. “It didn’t help.”

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com