No magic wand in Santa's gift bag

The Colorado Statesman

Jobs are job one as the Colorado General Assembly prepares to bang itself into session in less than a month, but the governor and legislative leaders from both parties warned against expecting any magical resolution to next year’s budget woes.

“There’s no magic wand,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told a group of about 30 statehouse reporters and editors at an annual pre-session briefing on Dec. 16 in Denver. “This isn’t Disneyland.”

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said, “everything is on the table” in the upcoming budget debate, but added the same “There is not a magic bullet or a magic waiver.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, take part in a briefing for reporters on Dec. 16. Among challenges in the upcoming legislative session, legislative leaders said, was determining how to balance proposed increases in Medicaid spending with cuts in other programs.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Ferrandino said the differences in priorities between Democrats and Republicans — who each control one chamber of the Legislature — will be stark. He also called it a “false choice” to pit “education and Medicaid, or Medicaid vs. seniors.”

But GOP leaders said growing spending on Medicaid — health care assistance for lower-income residents — threatens to engulf the state budget and must be tamed.

The growth of entitlement spending is “unsustainable,” said House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, called increasing Medicaid spending requirements “the tumor that’s destroying not just our budget, but every budget across the country.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper chastises Democrats for trampling Republicans in reapportionment proceedings at a forum on Dec. 15 at the Denver Press Club, saying “tone matters” and that Colorado’s air of cooperation between parties is part of the state’s brand. “It is our secret weapon,” he said as Colorado Press Association executive director Samantha Johnston looks on.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

McNulty’s counterpart in the other chamber, Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, used football metaphors to urge lawmakers to work for the common good, despite clear disagreements on how to achieve that.

“These guys are not my opponents,” he said. “Our opponent is the ongoing recession. Our opponent is the unemployment rate. Our opponent is anything that keeps food off of Colorado tables.”

Saying the people of Colorado deserve “cooperation and action on both sides of the aisle,” McNulty said the upcoming session isn’t the “time or place for grandstanding or political gamesmanship.”

On question after question, the legislative leaders sounded notes of cooperation in general but etched out sharp differences in particular at the nearly two-hour forum sponsored by the Colorado Press Association at the Denver Press Club.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, above, listen as Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, laid out legislative priorities at the forum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

It’s an annual ritual Hickenlooper said he’d like to participate in six more times, suggesting he plans to run for reelection in 2014 — perhaps the day’s least surprising revelation.

The popular governor took the opportunity — he spoke separately, before the legislative leaders took the stage — to scold fellow Democrats for the acrimony hanging over the next legislative session due to the conclusion of the reapportionment process.

The GOP is still smarting over new legislative maps drawn by Democrats that threw numerous Republicans — and a handful of Democrats — into districts with other incumbents, forcing primaries if paired lawmakers want to stay in office.

Hickenlooper reiterated widely repeated criticism he leveled at Democrats a few days earlier for ending the months-long process on a sour note.

“I think there was a way to do it without creating all those primaries,” Hickenlooper said. “The truth is, I was disappointed.” He said the way things worked out — “with so much bitterness” — threatens to undermine a tradition in Colorado of bipartisan solutions that keep businesses bound for the state.

Unlike other states that get mired in constant partisan gridlock, he said, Colorado is known for rising above those struggles. “That brand resonates — it is our secret weapon, it is Colorado’s advantage.”

Asked whether lingering ill feelings among Republicans might influence the prospects of Democratic legislation, McNulty said anyone worried about the effects of the reapportionment outcome “should have had that conversation with the Democrat reapportionment commissioners first,” but then he laid down his position: “I will not allow any member to obstruct the people’s business.”

He acknowledged Republicans are angry at the actions of Democratic commissioners, but added that. “none of that is held toward our colleagues in the statehouse.”

Later, though, in a discussion about possible fixes to the reapportionment process — which could take a constitutional amendment to change — McNulty made it clear the wound wasn’t healing so easily.

Calling the Democratic plan “clearly an attempt to cause dysfunction and disunity,” he said, “There is no other reason why these primaries were drawn than to be vindictive. They intend to cause us as much havoc in our caucus as possible.”

Cadman said he’s looking at the way the process is handled in Iowa and might propose changing Colorado’s reapportionment procedure. (In Iowa, legislative staffers propose maps, while in Colorado it’s handled by commissioners appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the Supreme Court’s chief justice.)

Shaffer said he was open to looking at Cadman’s proposals. Ferrandino agreed, saying he was “intrigued by the Iowa model” and that “everyone is open to try to improve the process.”

Even on the question of promoting jobs — something everyone agreed is a top priority — the parties sounded squarely at odds.

Senate Republicans proposed cutting regulations and taxes to spur job creation, claiming that tax cuts enacted this year have eased burdens on the agriculture and software industries. Senate Democrats unveiled a list of a dozen proposals they say will tackle persistently high unemployment in the state, though McNulty wasn’t impressed with the initial piece of the lineup announced this week, incentives to encourage the state to purchase from Colorado businesses.

“Their first bill out of the chute creates new hurdles to jump over and new hoops to jump through for Colorado business,” McNulty said.

Looming over all the budget talk is a lower court decision handed down a week earlier that says the state is failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide a “thorough and uniform” education for its children. In her ruling on the massive lawsuit known as the Lobato case, named for a plaintiff who attended school in the San Luis Valley, a Denver judge said the state could be falling short by as much as $4 billion in K-12 funding and ordered the state to come up with a fix.

Hickenlooper said it’s not clear where that much money could be found, “short of dismembering the structure of state government.” He said the proposed $89 million in cuts to K-12 spending in this year’s budget shouldn’t portend spending reductions as far as the eye can see.

“Our hope is to return the money to the education budget as soon as humanly possible,” he said, while noting that “the voters were pretty clear” when an overwhelming majority shot down a proposed tax increase on the November ballot to pay for education.

Shaffer said the Legislature will have some time to work toward solutions, as he doesn’t expect a state Supreme Court ruling by the time lawmakers adjourn in May. “The last thing we want to do is panic,” he added.

In a point that echoes arguments made by opponents of the losing $3 billion tax hike, McNulty said more money isn’t the only solution to education problems.

“We need serious structural reform,” he said, including more competition between schools and more choice for parents.

Both sides also threw down a gauntlet over Hickenlooper’s proposal to continue suspending a $100 million property-tax break for seniors known as the homestead exemption.

Cancelling the break for a year — a maneuver tapped by both Republicans and Democrats in previous years when the parties were responsible for balancing the state budget — would mean residents age 65 and older who’ve lived in their homes for 10 years wouldn’t get to deduct half the value of the first $200,000 of their home’s value off state taxes.

“It’s never the right time to increase property taxes on those seniors who have been hardest hit by this recession,” McNulty said.

During more discussion about how big a chunk Medicaid should take out of the state budget, Cadman said the state has “gotten ahead of federal mandates. What used to be our ceiling is now our floor,” adding that “we’re a little bit trapped.”

Ferrandino said it was pointless to talk about some $1 billion in optional Medicaid spending without being very clear about what programs are funded, including about $100 million for prescription drug costs and money for home- and community-based services that keep the state from having to spend even more money on nursing home costs.