Meet the new year, same as the old year

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A sneak preview of the 2010 Colorado legislative session indicates it will be a lot like 2009’s session.

Gov. Bill Ritter Monday told the annual Colorado Press Association forum that the upcoming legislative session will focus on economic recovery and balancing the budget.

Gov. Bill Ritter speaks to members of Colorado’s political press corps Monday during a 2010 legislative preview also attended by leadership.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“It has to be about economic recovery,” declared Ritter, who encouraged Republican and Democratic legislators to work together toward solutions.

“It has to be about how we can protect people, how we can keep the safety net in place, but also how we can grow the economy,” said Ritter.

“We’re poised to be in a recovery position in 2010,” declared the governor.

Ritter highlighted positive aspects of Colorado’s economy, noting that unemployment is three percentage points lower than it is in other states and that hundreds of jobs have been created.

“We’re seeing companies stay here and grow,” said Ritter, who issued a press release listing companies that have brought new jobs to the state over the past three years.

He credited job growth to business-friendly legislative measures, such as House Bill 1001, which gives a state income tax credit based on an employer’s payroll tax on new employees, and the Colorado Credit Reserve program, which provides
loans.

The Legislature faces the monumental task of covering a $560 million shortage in the fiscal year 2009-10 budget, which ends in June, and will have to cover a shortfall of at least $1 billion to balance the budget in FY 2010-11.

Ritter refused to say which programs would be on the chopping block to cover the deficit. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, also sidestepped the issue of budget cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, offered a few suggestions, but nothing substantial.

They all seemed to agree that it would take a bipartisan approach to resolve the budget shortfall that looms in the upcoming session.

“We’re committed to not playing partisan games,” declared Carroll.

With a glance at Penry and May, Carroll accused the Republicans of “burying their heads in the sand” and ignoring positive aspects of the state’s economy.

The bipartisan façade cracked wide open as a hot debate erupted between the Democratic and Republican leaders over budget cuts, revenue enhancers and constitutional amendments that affect the budgeting process.

The amendments in question are the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which limits revenue and requires voter approval of tax increases; the Gallagher Amendment, a complex formula that limits residential property taxes while placing greater tax burdens on commercial properties; and Amendment 23, which automatically increases annual funding for public education.

These amendments are viewed by some as obstacles to fulfilling the requirements of another amendment, which requires a balanced budget.

The Democratic and Republican leaders indicated a mutual interest in creating a commission that would review the constitutional amendments and submit a solution to voters for their approval.

Democrats Carroll and Shaffer voiced support for the fiscal-fix proposal. Across the aisle, Penry and May demanded that TABOR be left in place.

“I’m always amused that TABOR is the whipping boy for everything from the recession to Hurricane Katrina,” said May with a wry grin.

“TABOR has absolutely nothing to do with our current problem,” said May, who is adamantly opposed to altering TABOR, but says he is open to crafting a measure that would allow the Legislature to suspend mandated funding for programs.

Shaffer countered, “We need to be willing to put everything on the table and have a conversation about everything.

“That includes TABOR.”

The Senate president argued that it’s impossible to find a solution to the state budget crisis without addressing TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23.

May seemed to favor repealing the Gallagher Amendment because it places a greater property tax burden on businesses — which, he said, impedes job growth.

However, he doubted voters would approve its repeal.

“Citizens won’t vote to raise taxes on their houses,” asserted May.

The immediate crisis is balancing the immediate fiscal-year budget crisis.

Legislation is required to suspend programs such as the Senior Homestead tax exemption for seniors. Republicans oppose the idea even though former Gov. Bill Owens temporarily suspended the program in an economic recession during his tenure.

Republicans also object to diverting money from the Gaming Impact Fund, which has been used to offset the costs of law enforcement, medical response and court costs in communities affected by gambling.

There is also opposition to suspending the Waste Tire Recycling Fund, which is derived from state fees on the purchase of new tires, and to proposed changes in the distribution of federal lease revenues, which were to be used by municipalities and counties when mineral revenues decline.

Penry, who disbanded his Republican campaign for governor last month, sounded like he was back on the campaign trail.

The Senate minority leader attacked Ritter for increasing the state government by 2,000 employees at what, he estimated, was an average $40,000-a-year salary per employee.

“Let’s cut some bureaucracy!” demanded Penry.

Penry and May hammered the Democrats for passing the FASTER bill, which was signed into law by Ritter, raising vehicle registration fees and late penalties. The money, designated to improve transportation infrastructure, was supposed to create construction jobs last June.

“Jobs by June didn’t happen,” blasted May, who has repeatedly argued that the fee is a tax that should have been approved by voters.

Shaffer said that although FASTER isn’t perfect, it has created jobs.

Carroll accused the Republicans of having “a narrow-minded ideology.”

In a ridiculing tone, he said the Republicans complain about the Democrats’ approach to the budget, but don’t produce reasonable budget solutions of their own.

“Last year, when we did budget proposals, we had to close a $200 million gap,” said Carroll, who recalled the Republicans’ proposal offset only $70 million of the shortfall.

In the midst of the spirited exchanges, Penry made what is likely to be the most accurate forecast.

“This is the debate that is going to play out over the next four months,” he declared.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com