2010-11 budget balancing package passes House

The Colorado Statesman

One of the best chess matches of the session played out in the Colorado House this week, but contrary to any game where there are winners and losers, both sides said Wednesday they could claim victory. And legislators on both sides said the match likely foreshadows the battle to come, over the 2011-12 budget.

The chess match was over the package of 30 supplemental bills that would balance the 2010-11 budget and that started in the Senate last week. The package, minus one bill, arrived in the House for action on Tuesday.

The Senate put their final mark on the package Monday with little fanfare. It was a marked difference from the intense partisan battles that some of the bills provoked the previous Thursday. Senate Democrats had promised to change some of the bills to fit priorities that weren’t shared by the entire Joint Budget Committee, and they wasted no time getting to it during the second reading debate on Feb. 10.

Leading off the charge: taking $4 million in surplus funds from the office of the Secretary of State, Scott Gessler. That change came through an amendment to the first bill reviewed by the Senate, and at the behest of Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. Gessler and JBC Republicans have fought against taking those surplus dollars, first offered in November by Gessler’s predecessor, Bernie Buescher.

The Senate battled intensely over the amendment, which was added to Senate Bill 11-164, a bill that as introduced would transfer $103 million in cash funds to the General Fund from a variety of sources.

Buescher ran the department very effectively, Morse said, adding that the current officeholder had suggested he won’t be as efficient and needs the surplus for himself. Morse noted later that “this is the same Secretary of State who said he couldn’t live on $68,500 a year.”

Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, took umbrage at the characterization. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to take your money, it’s another to go after a state constitutional officer and make those accusations,” Cadman complained, and said “stealing money from others is an inappropriate assertion of power,” an assertion that Morse, heatedly, called “ridiculous.”

The Senate also approved an amendment to the Department of Education supplemental that restored $124,229 to the Start Smart breakfast program, an amendment offered by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, when the bill, SB 137, was reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier in the week.

SB 144, for the Department of Law, drew another Morse amendment that cut the department’s budget by $25,000. Morse said it was to eliminate consulting fees related to “friend of the court” briefs filed by Attorney General John Suthers that Morse said don’t apply to Colorado. That drew complaints from JBC member Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who pointed out that it was the second time Morse had tried to rescind money from a department with a [Republican] statewide elected official. Morse pointed out that Suthers had claimed that getting involved in other state cases, such as the healthcare reform lawsuit in Florida, would not cost Colorado anything, but Morse said that hasn’t been the case. “You don’t do things and hope the Legislature will provide the money later,” he said. “You don’t spend money without coming to us first.”

Lambert voted against one of the supplementals on second reading on Thursday, regarding limited gaming funds, but in its final recorded vote on Monday he voted with the rest of the JBC members to pass it. But rather than vote with the JBC to pass it, Lambert also voted against the cash funds transfer bill, SB 164, which got no Republican votes, on Monday.

One bill failed to make it over to the House, SB 158, which would have transferred $2 million from the Read-to-Achieve program into the General Fund. That bill was laid over until May 12, the day after the 2011 session is scheduled to end.

Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee began the process of reviewing the 29 bills still left in the package, and that’s when the chess match began in earnest, and the first move was a Democratic effort to force House Republicans to vote for SB 164. The Republicans came within one vote of punching a $103 million hole in the budget, when four of their members voted “no” against SB 164 and three Democrats seized the opportunity to force the Republicans to change their votes by also voting against it. The committee chair, Rep. Jon Becker,
R-Fort Morgan, instead of casting the last vote pulled the bill off the table. In voting “no,” Republicans, including Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, cited a “constitutional duty” not to use cash funds to balance the budget.

That prompted a short recess and a visit to committee Republicans from House Majority Chief of Staff Bill Skewes. Once the committee reconvened, one by one, the four Republicans asked to change their votes, citing their “constitutional duty to balance the budget.” The bill then passed on a 10-3 vote.

Committee member Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, told The Colorado Statesman later that “if Republicans want to be in charge of the budget, they have to make the tough votes just like the rest of us.”

The appropriations committee didn’t erase the Senate amendments, preferring to leave those changes to the House floor.

On Wednesday, the House took the package through second reading in a match that lasted almost four hours.

The heart of the match was over two bills: SB 164, and SB 156, which would reduce the general fund reserve from 4 percent to 2.3 percent. Democrats offered several amendments that would take any revenue that exceeds the 2.3 percent and put it into K-12 education. The first two efforts were dismissed; the first by a substitute amendment, and the second after a ruling by the chair that the amendment was a “settled question” — that it was the same as the first. That had Democrats crying foul, claiming it violated an agreement made between the minority and majority leader that amendments could be offered on budget bills and not ruled as settled questions, agreements that Democrats said are made every year.

Republicans then moved SB 156 to the end of the calendar, and the chess match continued. Democrats’ next major move was to put an amendment onto SB 164 that would take the Secretary of State’s $4 million and use it to restore the same amount to the Colorado Water Conservation Board perpetual base account, which funds water projects. “We’ve nearly decimated [this] account — it’s the bank account for water projects,” said Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins. Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who said he usually defends the base account, said the money was needed to balance the budget, an argument Democrats rejected after another amendment, offered by JBC members, restored Gessler’s money to his office.

Democrats took the next move when SB 156 came up again. They again offered the amendment to put excess revenue into K-12 education, and this time, it passed on a voice vote. Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, told The Statesman that “when the economy comes around, Democrats’ priority is to restore education funding first,” and that they were able to “take the first step” to fund Senate Bill 11-001. That bill, the top priority of Senate President Brandon Shaffer, would take any savings in the state budget and put it toward K-12 education. The bill is being carried by Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, who told The Statesman he was delaying any action on it until after the March 20 revenue forecast.

The last chess moves came when the committee went to recorded votes at the end of the second reading debate, and Democrats forced Republicans to vote on the amendment regarding Gessler’s and CWCB funds. Rep. Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, told the committee that the issue is not about balancing the budget. “It’s your choice,” he said; “the secretary of state or the future of water projects in Colorado.”

“It’s about prioritizing how we spend the money,” said Fischer. The amendment lost on a 30-35 vote, with Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, voting against, joining his JBC colleagues.

On Thursday, the entire package was approved on final votes in the House, with one last move by the Democrats — to force as many Republicans as possible to vote in favor of SB 164, especially Republicans who come from non-safe districts. This was a strategy Democrats openly talked about during Wednesday’s floor work. Thursday’s vote on SB-164 was 36-27, with three Republicans, including Reps. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, and Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, voting against. Beezley and Conti both won hotly contested races last November. Six Democrats voted in favor, including Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, who also won a tight race in the last election.

The package now goes back to the JBC as the committee of reference. JBC Chair Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, told The Statesman she does not expect many of the changes made in the two houses, especially for SB 164, to remain in the final versions that go to the governor. Hodge said she believed Senate Democrats would not likely be willing to “fall on their swords” for a $4 million amendment when $103 million in cash funds transfers are at stake.

In the end, both sides in the House this week claimed victory. Democrats could say that they were able to force Republicans to vote against water project funding, and that they started the path toward funding SB 1. Republicans got to claim they balanced the 2010-11 budget and were able to “protect fees paid by Colorado employers.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com