House approves $20 billion budget

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The House this week approved the $20 billion state budget for 2010-11 after debates marked by their collegiality and at times, humor.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, grins as Republicans stand for a division vote on eliminating the governor’s office from the 2010-11 state budget. Republicans held up masks of former House members to “disguise” their votes. May's amendment, a joke, did not pass. Holding up masks: Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, right, with a mask of former Rep. Lynn Hefley; Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, with former Rep. Mark Cloer. An unidentified legislator is holding a mask of former Rep. Tim Fritz.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The budget is contained in the Long Appropriations Bill, HB 1376. The House also approved 14 companion bills to the long bill dealing with various cash fund transfers and the state’s general reserve. The final vote on HB 1376 on Thursday was 40-25. Republicans made up the 25 “no” votes, and in a surprise move, one of those “no” votes was from Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Joint Budget Committee. Only on very rare occasions do JBC members not vote in sync on the long bill. Lambert is a co-sponsor of HB 1376; he voted for it in both the JBC and in the House Appropriations Committee. It's the first time anyone can remember that a member of the JBC voted against the long bill.

During second reading debate Tuesday, House members submitted only 15 amendments to the long bill, which several veteran capitol observers said was likely a new low, and only 13 of them were debated.

Among those that passed: reversing a decision by the House Appropriations Committee that would prevent Fort Lewis College from hiking tuition for 2010-11. The House Appropriations Committee amended the tuition footnote in the long bill, which generally sets a cap on the percentage increase by which public colleges and universities can raise in-state tuition. The cap set in the long bill for 2010-11 is 9 percent, although lawmakers are still negotiating over legislation on tuition flexibility that would allow public higher ed institutions to increase tuition rates by much more than that.

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, was behind the move to prevent Fort Lewis from hiking tuition. The college grants tuition-free education to Native American students under a treaty between tribes and the federal government, and that includes the higher tuition for out-of-state students. Pommer told The Statesman the college has taken advantage of the state by recruiting out-of-state Native American students, and the state must then cover their higher tuition costs. “This is a profit center for Fort Lewis,” Pommer said during Tuesday’s debate.

Three legislators sponsored an amendment to the committee report to overturn that decision. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, told House members during second reading debate Wednesday that the long bill was “singling out” Fort Lewis, which he called a “good fiscal steward” of the state’s money. Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, whose district includes the college, said the college is well attended by Colorado residents. About 31 percent are nonresidents, she said. Roberts also pointed out that the Fort Lewis board of trustees had already set tuition rates for 2010-11 and had not raised those rates. “Why give flexibility to other governing boards and not Fort Lewis?” she asked. And Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, a Fort Lewis alumnus, said the college should not be penalized for its treaty with the federal government.

JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, argued against the amendment, explaining that the state is required to pay 100 percent of the tuition costs for all Native American students, both resident and nonresidents, and that the state has a limited pot of money for higher education. If the college raised its tuition rates, the tuition increases for those students would come out of the pockets of the state’s other colleges and universities, he said.

The amendment passed on a standing, or division, vote.

Legislators also argued over an amendment regarding payment rates for private prisons, offered by Rep. Jerry Frangas, D-Denver. The Frangas amendment would have reduced the rate private prisons are paid per inmate by about $3.50 per day, to fund child welfare services in the Department of Human Services. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, was among those who argued successfully against the amendment, telling fellow legislators that a reduction in the provider rate could force private prisons to go elsewhere, and that could result in the loss of as many as 200 jobs at the private prison in his district, the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington.

House members also approved amendments requiring the governor to submit a list of state-owned properties totaling $70 million to the General Assembly by May 31, 2010; directed the Office of State Planning and Budgeting to study the effectiveness of consolidating executive branch human resource services within one agency, and to delay the sale of the Trinidad State Nursing Home by one year, a move proposed in 2009 by the General Assembly.

The low count on the amendments reflected the lack of any money to argue about, said one Republican staffer. Tipton told The Statesman there were some things Republicans would like to do, such as ensuring education for rural districts or fund highway improvements but the budget shortfall makes that impossible. On the other hand, he said, the constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced is a “blessing in disguise. When times were good, the state could have added or increased programs or infrastructure, which would have made today’s [budget] challenges more difficult.”

There were also a few light-hearted moments during the long bill debate.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, offered an amendment, in jest, to eliminate the governor’s office, OSPB, the office of information technology and the office of economic development. May, who is term-limited this year, said such a move would save the state more than $11 million in general funds.

Ferrandino, who was charged with defending the JBC’s budget strategy, joked it would be hard to ask House members to vote against the amendment. Republicans then asked for a division vote on the amendment, and when that vote was taken, a dozen Republicans put on face masks with photos of former Republican
members of the House, which drew laughs from the rest of the chamber and those watching the proceedings in the House gallery. The amendment failed.

After its final approval on Thursday, the long bill and its companion measures go on to the Senate for further action. That action will take place next week, as the Legislature is closed for Good Friday.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com