Guest Columns

HUDSON: Budget cutting is a messy job

Get ready, the real ox-goring is set to begin

One of Johnny Carson’s funniest skits was his recurring appearance as Carnac, the Magnificent! He would stroll to his desk wearing a feathered turban and silk cape where he would use his “psychic powers” to discern the answers for questions placed in sealed envelopes provided by Ed McMahon.

Holding the envelope against his forehead he would announce an answer, then rip open the envelope to read an unexpected and usually comic explanation for his prediction. This shtick was an audience favorite.

It’s a little harder to play this trick in print, but lets give it a try. If the answer is: the Colorado Joint Budget Committee, what would the question in the envelope be? How about, “Who will spend every last penny they can find, transfer, steal, defer or borrow?” When you’re a billion dollars short, not one dime will be left in a cash drawer for change. Everyone knows this. The Colorado Supreme Court has even ruled that it won’t second guess the Legislature when it raids cash funds legally dedicated to a specific purpose and dumps them into the General Fund.

Consequently, it was more than a little puzzling when House Republicans decided to demand that the JBC cut an additional $200 million out of next year’s budget despite the estimates projected in the January revenue forecast. While it’s conceivable that forecasted revenues will shrink before the March forecast arrives, most observers believe the Colorado economy is gradually strengthening. In any case, the JBC will establish spending levels based on the March forecast as they always have. Introducing a resolution to ‘correct’ the January forecast falls into that netherworld of meaningless argument that Jonathan Swift satirized in his discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

One is left gaping at precisely who the Republican leadership thinks might be the audience for their demonstration of virtual fiscal probity? Caution is frequently deserving of commendation, but it’s unlikely the JBC could ever be persuaded to cut any deeper than it already must. And, just where is the constituency demanding savings above and beyond the call of duty? An even more perplexing initiative was the short-lived effort to cancel state support for warm breakfasts for our poorest school kids. There is a certain legislative muscularity in targeting a group wholly incapable of defending itself, but the $124,000 in projected savings is barely a pimple on an elephant’s butt. Few taxpayers can be profoundly concerned about this
30-cent-a-day extravagance.

For observers of the JBC it appears that the House Republican appointees’ hall passes do not extend to casting hard votes without circling back around for a discussion with their leadership. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s going to slow the long bill process down moving forward. At this writing, the JBC is awaiting the Governor’s amendments to the 2011-12 budget submitted by the Ritter administration. OSPB has played its cards close to the vest, so no one really knows what recommendations might be coming. Once in hand, the JBC budget debate will really begin. Lingering squabbles over changes in the current budget will remain, but that train left the station last summer and only four months remain to impose course corrections. The real ox-goring lies ahead. Wear your galoshes. It’s hard to remove bloodstains from good leather.

Miller Hudson, a former state representative from Denver, continues to follow the political scene at the Capitol.