State budget passes Senate on mostly partisan lines

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The $18.2 billion state budget for 2010-11, contained in House Bill 1376, the Long Appropriations Bill, passed the Senate on April 9 and is headed toward its final resolution.

HB 1376 got through the Senate on a 22-13 vote, supported by all Democrats and Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, a member of the Joint Budget Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. It was opposed by the rest of the Republican caucus.

The final two-hour Senate discussion on HB 1376 featured comments from Republicans who claimed the bill did not address the state’s greatest need: to cut $1 billion from the budget to prepare for a larger shortfall in 2011-12.

It’s a $10 solution to a million-dollar problem, said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “We offered a few small bites of a large apple and it will turn sour next year ... It is our responsibility not to dump a billion dollar shortfall on the next people who occupy this chamber.”

“I consider this a dark day for Colorado,” said Sen. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, who said he had never been able to vote for a budget bill in his ten years in the Legislature. “Those in the majority have shirked their responsibility in doing what the citizens of Colorado want us to do. I’m ashamed of what we’ve done here.”

“We’ve balanced the budget on the back of federal debt,” commented Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, referring to more than $600 million coming from the federal government to corrections, K-12 and higher education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In defense of the budget, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said he also was ashamed, but that was because the state would take $260 million out of K-12, when Colorado is already in the lower quartile on per-pupil spending, Medicaid funding is the lowest in the country and higher education funding is also dead last in the nation. “I’m not proud to vote for this budget ... I feel good that we did our senatorial duty but I don’t feel good about what we’re doing to the citizens of this state.”

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said the budget had cut the fat and the muscle and was now cutting off limbs. He warned of the catastrophe that would face the state if it had to de-fund higher education, that the state’s multi-million dollar investment in the University of Colorado Denver campus at Anschutz would be “flushed away.” Cuts are not the only answer, Romer said; revenue also has to be the answer. “I am ashamed to vote for a budget that doesn’t reflect my values, but there isn’t any other choice,” he said.

The debate on April 9 was frequently a repeat of arguments presented the previous day during second reading on HB 1376 and its dozen companion bills. During that April 8 debate, Republicans mounted a vigorous effort to address the lack of spending cuts in the bill.

“How will you deal with the $1 billion cliff?” asked Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. “The answer is nothing.”

There were two dozen amendments offered to HB 1376, low in comparison to some years. Republicans had warned for weeks they intended to offer a long laundry list of budget cuts and other options for reducing the budget, but Schultheis told The Colorado Statesman on Thursday they decided against it based on “the law of diminishing returns.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, offered two amendments to make across-the-board general fund appropriations cuts, one by 3 percent and another by 5 percent. Renfroe said the department directors would have the discretion on how to make the cuts under his amendments. Heath argued that while businesses cut back when business is down, the state’s business is up in areas such as increased unemployment claims and college enrollment. “Management 101 says don’t cut across the board — it’s the worst idea ever,” Heath said. JBC Vice-chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, said that the departments had already cut 5 percent out of their general fund budgets. “That train has already left the station,” she said. Further cuts would require layoffs and shutting down programs, which she said Republicans did not suggest.

“This amendment is borne out of the unbelievable frustration on our side that we aren’t making the cuts we need to,” said Schultheis. “It’s frustration that is driving us there.”

Both amendments failed.

Tempers also flared over some amendments.

Renfroe offered an amendment to eliminate short-term disability and dental insurance for state employees, which would save $6 million. The first thing businesses cut in a downturn is benefits, Renfroe said. “This makes so much sense I can’t believe it,” said Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, noting that those benefits had become an entitlement.

“It’s a parade of horribles,” said Penry. “If we don’t cut the budget this year, we will cut K-12 education by $300 million next year ... Your party is the party of no when it comes to cuts.”

JBC member Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, defended the employee benefits, telling senators that the state has to value its employees and their service, although noting that in his own business that was something he did not offer. Taking away insurance will impact the employees and their families and employee morale, Tapia said. Renfroe charged back. “You anger me to no end,” he told Tapia. “In your business you’ll cut benefits but in the state business, give it all to ‘em!”

“I don’t care that I angered you,” said the normally soft-spoken Tapia, who said running his business is not the same as running the state. His business is based on the jobs he gets, but in state government it’s services that citizens ask for, he said.

Keller criticized Republicans who called for budget cuts but did not call for program cuts and even argued against cuts that would affect their districts. “You cannot layoff employees without closing programs,” she said, mentioning Penry’s desire to add faculty at Mesa State College or other Republicans who opposed closing prisons or sentencing reductions. “You will fight hard to keep them open,” she said.

Lundberg disputed the assertion that the government’s job was to provide services. “Is that the intention of the constitution? This is a fundamental issue to confront.” Providing services, Lundberg said, is for nonprofits or churches. “They should provide services for the least of us in need.”

Democrats also had their own amendments to offer.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, proposed an amendment, later voted down, to prevent the opening of a tower at Colorado State Penitentiary II in Cañon City, which would provide 316 beds for solitary confinement or administrative segregation prisoners. Carroll called the opening of CSP II “a moral question,” noting that prison populations have decreased in the past few years and that the $10 million to open the tower was not the best use of those dollars. She pointed out the tower would need 220 full-time employees to open the tower for 316 prisoners, and the money would be better used for education, vocational training, drug and alcohol counseling or sex offender treatment. In addition, putting mentally-ill prisoners in 23-hour-per day lockdown was “cruel and unusual treatment” under the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she said. Prisoners would receive treatment through “a computer screen and we think this will get them better?”

Tapia defended the decision to open CSP II, noting that prison facilities have been on lockdown, sometimes for multiple days, 176 times in the past year. When those facilities are on lockdown, prisoners cannot attend training, counseling or other services, he said. In addition, the state now has to pay to maintain an empty facility, and to open the tower would relieve damage being done in other facilities. And Keller pointed out that maximum security prisoners would go to CSP II; they are currently housed in facilities that are not designed for maximum security needs.

Among other amendments: one from Lundberg to eliminate the state’s early release program. Funds to cover the costs for keeping inmates in prison should come from the security program at the state capitol, which he said was “false security.” Tapia pointed out that 569 weapons were confiscated through the metal detectors at the capitol last year.

After the long bill passed the senate it was sent back to the Joint Budget Committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate version.

On Tuesday, the Joint Budget Committee met as the conference committee for the long bill to resolve those differences and to deal with technical issues. The Senate in working on HB 1376 had rejected two House amendments, both dealing with footnotes. The Senate also adopted five amendments to HB 1376, two that added footnotes to the bill, and three that made appropriations changes.

The most substantive change to HB 1376 was to add $3.3 million to the Department of Human Services for child welfare services, an amendment put on in the Senate by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. The amendment initially put the budget out of balance by $2.3 million, which the Senate resolved by amending a cash transfer bill in the budget package. However, the conference committee voted to strip that amendment out of HB 1376.

The conference committee is expected to present its report to the General Assembly within the next week.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com