Senate Republicans' budget proposal goes down

By Marianne Goodland

The major plan put forth by Senate Republicans to balance the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget went down to defeat on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 168 was sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction and its listed co-sponsors included all of the Senate Republicans except for Joint Budget Committee member Sen. Al White, R-Hayden.

The bill, known as the Taxpayer Protection Act of 2010, attempted to enact a 0.24 percent cut in state personnel expenditures for 2009-10, or about $17.8 million. For 2010-11, the state’s general fund expenditures would be cut by 4.39 percent, or $306.5 million. The bill states the cuts should be made in state personnel expenditures or to “nonessential state programs,” with priority given to the former.

SB 168 was assigned to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where Wednesday’s hearing was held. Penry was realistic about its chances, referring to the state affairs committee as the “legislative gallows,” although adding that “the view is much nicer and the prison guards” he hoped would be friendlier.

The budget-balancing plan contained in SB 168 was unveiled during a press conference last month while senators battled across party lines over a package of tax exemption and income tax repeal bills. Its introduction drew criticism from Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, who said he had granted late bill status to the Republican plan, and accused Senate Republicans of waiting until the tax exemption bills were in the Senate before introducing the bill.

“A recession is the wrong time to increase taxes,” Penry told the committee Wednesday, referring to the tax exemption package. He also noted a recent memo from Legislative Council Economist Natalie Mullis, which he said had pointed out that the budget-balancing package for the 2009-10 budget, which passed the Senate last week, did not make substantial spending cuts — 82 percent of the changes were in one-time spending fixes. That leaves the cuts to future legislators, Penry said.

Responding to Democratic criticisms of the across-the-board cuts, Penry said that Gov. Bill Ritter had ordered state agencies to enact 10 percent across-the-board cuts last year, yet many of those cuts were never implemented. And SB 168 isn’t the only idea Republicans have on the budget, he said, explaining that 22 ideas for spending reductions were offered during last year’s debate on the Long Appropriations Bill and only a handful were adopted. Some of those ideas will be back when the long bill comes up later this month, Penry said.

“The General Assembly hasn’t made tough decisions,” Penry said, suggesting the state could consolidate boards or commissions or consolidate agencies and legislators should also look at entitlement programs. “Rather than continuing to go down the ‘business as usual’ road of more taxes, fees and gimmicks, it’s time to begin doing the tough business of governing and that means reduced spending,” he said.

A press release issued later in the day by Senate Republicans stated that Democrat leadership delayed debate on the bill until after Ritter had signed the tax increases into law. But the press release failed to note that Shaffer had given SB 168 late bill status, even though Senate Republicans leaders had discussed the proposal with him, along with the tax exemption package, before the 2010 session even started; or that Republicans had demanded an immediate hearing on SB 168 before the tax exemption bills went through the Senate. Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, brought up the bill’s timing in Wednesday’s hearing, asking Penry why none of the senate Republicans who co-sponsored the bill thought it important enough to reserve its title for one of their five bills. Penry did not directly answer that charge.

Penry defended the bill’s lack of specific direction on where to make the cuts, stating that across-the-board cuts could be enacted by state agency directors, who know their agencies best and where to find inefficiencies.

The committee’s chair, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, told Penry he did not believe in across-the-board cuts. “I would expect more from you and your party,” he said, later explaining that he had expected a more thoughtful plan and not through a late bill.

“You don’t like this approach — we have a lot more,” Penry said later, referring to ideas the Republicans have for dealing with the long bill.

The bill was postponed indefinitely on a 3-2 party line vote.

The Republican budget ideas proposed last year during debate on the long bill includes more than $14 million in cuts to the Department of Corrections for academic and vocational instructors, therapeutic community programs; a recreation subprogram, case management for substance abuse; parole services and mental-health follow-up, and reductions in private prison provider rates.

Another $1 million in cuts was proposed for the state’s Economic Development Commission. Republicans also suggested cutting the state-funded salaries of university employees who make more than $100,000 annually by 5 percent and redirecting those funds to academic instruction, for a savings of $4.5 million.

Another proposal suggested cutting the salaries and health, life and dental benefits for legislative staff; reducing the state’s contribution for health, life and dental insurance for all state employees, for a savings of $8.8 million; and cutting all state employee salaries by 3 percent, for a savings of $28.8 million.

The 2009-10 budget-balancing package referred to by Penry is getting to the governor’s desk in bits and pieces. As approved by the Senate after final votes on Feb. 26, the 2009-10 state budget was still $1 million short of being balanced. A $1 million transfer from the Innovative Higher Education Research Fund in HB 1339, which the Senate on Thursday decided to use to shore up an employment support program in HB 1327, was reversed by the Senate on Friday. But the Senate did not make other changes to find that $1 million.

That decision now falls to the conference committees.

Five of the 32 bills were amended in the Senate and required House concurrence. Wednesday, the House voted to adopt Senate amendments on two of the five bills. Senate amendments on the last three, on cash transfers (HB 1327), tobacco revenues (HB 1320) and limited gaming money transfers (HB 1339), were not supported by the House and the bills were then referred to the Joint Budget Committee, which acts as the conference committee on the bills.