Bipartisan mood shattered with the shuttering of a mic

The Colorado Statesman

“You’re out of order.”

That became the mantra of Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, during a debate Tuesday morning on what some legislators called a “meaningless” annual resolution on the budget.

The debate turned into a heated exchange between minority House Democrats and McNulty, who at one point shut off the microphone of a Democrat who protested what he called a lack of decorum afforded his caucus. More fireworks would erupt later in the morning.

The measure, House Joint Resolution 11-1007, certifies the amount of general fund revenues available for the state’s budget. Usually, those figures come from the forecasts of the Legislative Council economists, and they are used by the Joint Budget Committee as a basis for coming up with the budget.

On Monday, however, McNulty and other Republican leaders in the House called for the figure to be cut by another 2.75 percent, or about $200 million. McNulty told reporters Monday that the 2.75 percent figure was based on an analysis of past recessions. Cutting another 2.75 percent out of the budget would make it less likely that the governor would have to come back later in the fiscal year to make forced budget cuts that would be spread out over much shorter periods of time.

For the 2010-11 budget, for example, falling revenue forecasts required Gov. Bill Ritter to come back twice, in August and in October, to address continued shortfalls in the state budget.

“It’s time to be honest about this problem within our budgeting process,” McNulty said in a statement Monday. “For several years, the Legislature has planned and budgeted on overly optimistic tax revenue projections, only to force the Governor to go back and make rushed cuts to the budget when state coffers take in less money than anticipated.”

Tuesday morning, the House Finance Committee approved an amendment to HJR 1007 that put into place McNulty’s 2.75 percent reduction.

“We have a mechanism that deals with the eventuality that revenues fall short,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood, during Tuesday morning’s floor debate. “That’s the state reserve. If we want a bigger buffer…we need to increase the amount of the state reserve.”

That drew the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, to point out that revenue forecasting is “not an exact science. We tap the reserve every year [and yet] the governor has to come in” with more “drastic cuts to programs and services. We’re giving the JBC direction to budget to a slightly lower number,” he said. “It’s easier to have this conversation now” than at the end of the fiscal year.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, a JBC member, called the resolution “meaningless… This resolution has little to do with what we do across the street.”

But that didn’t stop or even lessen the intensity of the debate.

Democrats began introducing amendments to the resolution, starting with one from Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, that would take any revenues that exceed the forecasts and put it into K-12 education. That led to a series of “out of order” gavel-banging from McNulty.

House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, was the next to be called “out of order” for an amendment, on ensuring veterans programs would not be cut.

The gavel-banging prompted Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, to complain to the press table that the Republicans were refusing to allow the Democrats to express their views, “just like 10 years ago,” when Republicans were in charge of the House.

Ferrandino’s fellow JBC member, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, agreed with Ferrandino that the resolution isn’t binding, but “it sends a message to the people of Colorado that we understand what they’re going through…we don’t lack compassion,” responsible to govern “to show people we care.”

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, pointed out that another $200 million in cuts would come from K-12 and higher education, which he said would “inflict needless pain,” but Fischer got the hook from McNulty after he asked McNulty what had happened to decorum in the House. McNulty responded by calling him out of order, and when Fischer continued to speak, McNulty shut off the podium microphone in the well of the House.

The 2.75 percent amendment was eventually voted onto the Finance Committee report on a 39-26 vote, with six Democrats joining the majority Republicans to support it. The resolution then passed the House on the voice vote.

Tuesday’s fireworks continue what has been a tempestuous week at the capitol. On Jan. 18, the JBC voted 3-3, along party lines, to reject a JBC staff request, through its supplemental process, to allow the Department of Education to spend $124,229 in available funds for the K-12 Start Smart breakfast program. The funding, according to the JBC staff analysis, would cover about six or seven weeks of co-pays, around 30 cents per meal, for children who are eligible for reduced cost school breakfast under federal poverty guidelines. Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, became the focal point of criticism for the Republicans’ vote against the funding when he told The Denver Post that “as a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family.”

The controversy resulted in heated criticism of Lambert and the JBC Republicans throughout last week, both on political blogs and in newspaper editorials.

Democrats took advantage of the heat Monday, holding a press conference at Dora Moore Elementary School in Denver to announce they would sponsor a bill to reverse the JBC’s decision.

Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, the House sponsor, said Monday that “being able to provide breakfast each day for our neediest kids is an important function of government. We should not be balancing our budget on the backs of our families in these tough economic times.”

House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, added that Democrats have made $5 billion worth of cuts to the state budget in the last few years, but “we were committed to not cutting at the expense of low-income schoolchildren.”

McNulty told The Colorado Statesman after the House Finance Committee meeting that “it looks like” the era of bipartisanship in the House is over, and blamed the Democrats for its demise. But McNulty also added that he believes the bipartisan spirit still exists between Republicans and Gov. John Hickenlooper.

With regard to the school breakfast, Lambert backed down on Tuesday, saying on Twitter that, “We may eventually change our vote because its [sic] technical and the Gov’s Office admitted guilt.” The reference to the governor’s office was to a story in Tuesday’s Denver Post, where former OSPB Director Todd Saliman said his office had previously denied the request because he believed it didn’t meet the technical requirements for a budget supplemental.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com