Shaffer urges Dem, GOP cooperation

By Ernest Luning

Simultaneously somber and buoyant, Colorado’s state senators — surrounded by assorted family of several generations, Capitol staff, lobbyists, well-wishers, onlookers and the occasional group of schoolchildren — opened the 2010 General Assembly with calls for a bipartisan approach to a session already dominated by a projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Predictably, the calls from the leaders of both parties sketched starkly different takes on how that bipartisanship might unfold.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer surveys the festivities on opening day of the state senate.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

After a young cellist and violinist serenaded the upper chamber from the gallery, Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, clashed on few specifics but outlined competing sets of priorities, agreeing only that bipartisan reform of the state’s public employee pension plan was long overdue.

Penry urged his Republican colleagues to recognize that a plan he and Shaffer are co-sponsoring to fix the Public Employees Retirement Account is based on reforms that “are the real deal.” The proposal would keep PERA a defined-benefits plan, reduce cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age for the plan’s 400,000-plus members.

Wasting no time, Shaffer drew a direct comparison between the current economy and the Great Depression.

“Starting today, we have two goals,” he said, “to create good jobs and balance our budget. Just as Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, ‘Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.’ ”

On top of making the budget “lean and responsible,” Shaffer laid out a Democratic agenda that includes establishing job retraining accounts, beefing up loan programs to bring health care jobs to rural communities and boosting the state’s renewable energy requirement for utilities.

Penry, for his part, had them rolling in the aisle with a speech that started heavy on the laughs to ease the way into sharp disagreements over budget fixes floated by Democrats.

“So, not much different around here these days, huh?” Penry deadpanned.

When the Senate remained silent (tough crowd!), he hastened to improvise.

“That was a joke. A lot’s different. In fact, a lot has changed since we last met in May.”

State Sen. Mike Johnston, his wife, Courtney, and one of their sons on the floor of state state senate on opening day.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

That understatement drew scattered chuckles.

But the minority leader was just warming up.

“Since we last met, the budget committee pored over difficult budget circumstances, grappling with the deteriorating budget outlook,” Penry said.

“I know since we adjourned, a number of you took trips around your district, around the world, and a number of you spent time with your kids and grandkids.

“Me? I ran for governor. But, fortunately, I got that out of my system by January. Many of you offered words of encouragement when I made the difficult decision to get out of the race for governor, but I’m not going to lie — getting out of the race hurt my pride and bruised my ego, which might explain why Sen. Romer has been trying so hard to get me to join him on one of those (medical marijuana) dispensary tours.”

After waiting a beat (You could almost see the drummer poised to tap out a rim shot), Penry said, “but I’m not.”

Milking one of the upcoming session’s hottest topics, Penry lobbed another joke about medical marijuana to his amused crowd.

“Speaking of medical marijuana,” Penry said, “an issue that will be in front of us in a significant way in this session, I read somewhere that the Public Health Department is approving around 300 permits for medical marijuana each and every day.

“Which brings me to the Republicans’ first economic development proposal of the day: We propose transferring the person in charge of processing marijuana permits over to the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. With this small change, my friends, we will create jobs and grow economic opportunity as natural gas dispensaries crop up around the Western Slope.”

Penry couldn’t resist one last zinger.

“As I told (Speaker Terrance Carroll) yesterday at a joint appearance,” Penry said, “if marijuana jokes were a taxable event, we’d have a budget surplus before the Ides of March.”

After reiterating Shaffer’s plea for partisans on both sides of the aisle to accept compromise on their PERA reform proposal, Penry listed three other topics he hoped could benefit from bipartisan cooperation: fixing higher education funding problems, reviving last session’s stalled effort to make it harder to amend the state Constitution, and establishing a rainy day fund to weather the next economic emergency.

Chase Penry, 7, accompanies his dad, Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, for the pomp and circumstance of the first day of the 2009 legislative session.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

Penry blamed previous Republican and Democratic Senates alike for failing to have the foresight to create a rainy day fund. If the Legislature had set aside money when the notion was first proposed in 2006, Penry contended, the fund would have accumulated at least $2 billion, substantially blunting most of the cuts enacted since the economy tanked two years ago.

“When the economy recovers and revenues return to the state’s coffers,” Penry said, “we’ll have a choice — repeat the mistakes made by Republicans before the 9/11 recession, and repeated by the Democrats before this most recent Great Recession, or we can prepare for the next inevitable downturn.”

He urged legislators to bite the bullet this session and create the fund when the need for savings was most evident.

Penry concluded by challenging Democratic plans to repeal tax breaks on business energy use and “everything from food, to pharmaceuticals, to farm land, and even the Internet,” urging lawmakers to consider that the tax breaks had been put in place to stimulate the economy and yanking them during a downturn would have the opposite effect.