2010-11 budget up for its (hopefully) final balancing act

The Colorado Statesman

The Start Smart K-12 breakfast program, which caused embarrassment for Republicans and over which Democrats made hay, is back.

The program and its $124,229 funding was put into a 2010-11 supplemental Wednesday for the Department of Education.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, a charter school principal, introduced the amendment to restore the supplemental funding and it got the backing of the entire Senate Appropriations Committee. That included Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, one of three Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee who voted down the funding and then became a lightening rod for criticism after inferring that low-income parents should take responsibility for feeding their own children instead of relying on the government.

The Department of Education bill was one of 30 supplemental bills sent to the General Assembly this week, intended to close a $216 million gap in the 2010-11 budget.

The bills were heard Wednesday morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be up for Senate debate as early as Friday.

It’s unlikely that the rest of the supplementals will make it over to the House untouched either, according to Senate Democrats. JBC member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, told The Colorado Statesman this week he does not feel bound by any 3-3 votes taken by the committee during its deliberations on the supplementals in the past several weeks. And Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, has his own ideas on how to deal with some of the decisions made (or not made) by the JBC.

Some of those votes are going to be revisited, according to Shaffer, who told reporters Monday that the JBC made decisions “that they may not have gotten right,” referring to the Start Smart K-12 breakfast program and allowing Secretary of State Scott Gessler to keep $3.5 million in surplus funds.

Steadman said he was disappointed that the JBC did not take another vote on the Start Smart program before the JBC’s supplemental bill for the education department was introduced Monday. Steadman said he voted to support the program during the JBC deliberations.

Shaffer said the Senate also would revisit the JBC’s decision regarding the surplus in the Secretary of State’s office. “We’ll have a healthy conversation about Gessler’s plans to keep the extra funds,” Shaffer promised.

With regard to other JBC decisions, such as the Secretary of State’s money, Steadman said he intends to stand with the JBC. (The committee initially voted to take $2 million but reversed that vote a few days later.)

Steadman pointed out that taking the funds from the SOS would require statutory change and a unanimous vote by the JBC to sponsor the bill, and that didn’t happen. Steadman said it is his duty on this issue to stick up for the JBC. “The dynamic [in the General Assembly] is 94 against 6, and I’m one of the six,” he said.

If multiple members of the JBC decide to side with their caucuses rather than the committee on any other changes to the supplementals, it will likely mark the only time in recent memory that this has happened. In a review of JBC votes during the last decade, the members voted as a bloc of three in each house, sticking together on the bills they submitted as a committee. Even in years when the JBC saw more than its share of new members, like in 2005 when the committee got two new members each from the House and Senate, the committee stuck together.

But last year, Lambert, then a JBC member from the House, did what no other JBC member had done: the first-time JBC member voted against three of the supplementals authored by the JBC, and eventually, against the JBC-sponsored Long Appropriations Bill.

Long-time capitol observer John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, told The Statesman this week that for years the JBC was the “anchor” on fiscal policy — a “reservoir of experience, maturity and bipartisanship.” Those days are over, he said.

He cited several factors for the dissent that now marks some of the committee’s recent actions, as well as the entire Legislature. That includes pressure put on the Legislature by the third economic downturn in a decade, and term limits. When term limits first hit the Capitol in 1998, it hit six members with an aggregate 57 years of legislative experience and 33 years on JBC, he said. The JBC members at that time “were not rigid partisans and worked well together.” The aggregate legislative experience for the current JBC is 20 years, with only three years on JBC (four of the members are in their first year). “The level of bipartisanship has thinned, to say the least,” Straayer said.

Other factors are the “growing national sharp partisanship, which is infecting Colorado” and which Straayer said has driven the Republican Party to the ideological right, and the “hash” the General Assembly and voters had made of the state’s fiscal policy, through Gallagher, TABOR, Amendment 23, GOCO and the tobacco tax. “It has made revenues unpredictable and stripped the Legislature of fiscal authority and flexibility,” Straayer said. He also noted that a decade ago, the General Assembly lowered the state’s income taxes and other taxes, actions that they cannot now undo. Finally, he cited a “robust anti-government industry,” led by Doug Bruce, John Andrews and Jon Caldara, whom he said have successfully kept the focus on the Grover Norquist dream of “shrinking government until it is small enough to drown in the bathtub,” rather than on roads, bridges, schools, colleges and health care.

The lack of bipartisanship has led to another problem, Straayer also explained — lack of long-term vision. Nearly 70 percent of current legislators have academic degrees from public colleges and universities, he said. “Someone else paid for most of it, though — the folks who, over the years and decades, built and sustained the educational institutions. These same folks built our roads, bridges, and utility systems,” Straayer said. “What, now, will these beneficiaries do for the next generation? Let it all disintegrate in the name of shrunken government? Or do what is needed for our kids and grandkids and the Colorado of the coming decades?”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com