Legislators feeling a rare Kumbaya moment

But ASSET, civil unions bill could turn session into turmoil
The Colorado Statesman

State lawmakers on Tuesday praised themselves for what they consider to be a bipartisan legislative session filled with compromise, while still bracing for what is expected to be bitter fights in the next month over providing discounted tuition rates to undocumented students and recognizing civil unions between same-sex couples.

Speaking before the Denver City Club, the four lawmakers — Sens. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Reps. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs — said the media was wrong at the beginning of the session in January to characterize the atmosphere under the Gold Dome as being highly divisive in an election year. The lawmakers noted significant compromise, especially over budget negotiations.

Members of the evenly split bipartisan six-member Joint Budget Committee last week struck a balance in negotiating the 2012-13 fiscal year budget — a proposed $8 billion spending plan — by agreeing to a 1 percent personnel vacancy savings, which occur when higher-paid employees leave and are replaced by lower-paid ones. The original agreement called for a 2 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies’ payrolls, saving an estimated $20 million during what was expected to be another difficult revenue year. Democrats had successfully pushed for a nearly $16 million increase for state workers’ higher health care costs, so the savings were really just over $4 million.

But state agencies raised concerns over the cuts, arguing that they would need to lay off as many as 500 state employees if the 2 percent vacancy savings went through.

Then, the state’s budget picture became much rosier, with analysts projecting that there would be nearly $200 million left over to spend. That $200 million would be available even after restoring a $98.5 million property tax break for seniors that had been suspended due to the state’s declining revenues in the down economy. The Senior Homestead Exemption was expected to be one of the most explosive fights in the Legislature this year, with Republicans vowing to fully restore the tax break, while Democrats said the exemption would come at the expense of education. The fight quickly came to an end after March revenue forecasts projected more dollars to spend in the upcoming fiscal year beginning in July.

With the sanguine budget outlook, the JBC began discussions on how to spend the nearly $200 million in “new money.” The budget agreement included $57.2 million for K-12; the elimination of $54.2 million in cuts to higher education; $13.4 million to promote Colorado tourism; $11.9 million to assist the developmentally disabled; and $9.7 million for support services for low-income seniors.

Given the spending, Democrats argued that there was no need to cut personnel at a time when the state was facing a cheerfully optimistic Colorado economy. But after days of impasse, the committee struck its compromise, agreeing to the 1 percent vacancy savings. The budget agreement gave lawmakers a reason to gloat, and that they did at Tuesday’s City Club meeting.

“Don’t believe what you hear in the newspaper,” said Waller. “Coming into this session, everyone predicted that this was going to be one of the most partisan sessions in history … I’m here to tell you, and I’m really proud to say this, that has not been the case at all.”

“In this budget we are going to hold K-12 harmless this year — I’m incredibly proud of that — we’re not going to have to make the cuts to higher education that we’ve made in the years past, and really important for us, we’re able to protect the Senior Homestead Property Tax Exemption as well,” Waller continued. “I’m just so incredibly proud that we are able to come together as Republicans and Democrats to make sure that that happened in the state this year.”

But the question remains whether the divisive battles that were avoided were only prevented because of the uplifting revenue forecasts and budget picture. Todd, the assistant Democratic leader, indicated that had the forecasts not been as encouraging, then Democrats were not going to back down on the Senior Homestead fight.

The voter-approved exemption allows seniors 65 or older to claim the tax break for property taxes, up to 50 percent for the first $200,000 of the value of their home. Lawmakers are permitted to suspend the exemption in troubled economic times through legislation. Todd believes the program should only be applied to the state’s most needy seniors, and suggested scaling it back over time.

“If everyone that qualifies for it takes it, I’m not sure that’s going to be enough money, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said. “But I think our senior citizens who are most in need should be our top priority, and then hopefully be able to scale it down. My husband and I qualify, but I don’t even know that we’ll apply for it. I’d much rather that money go to education.”

Most bitter fights ahead?

While Todd did acknowledge that the Senior Homestead fight came to an amicable end this year, and that she was pleased with overall budget negotiations, she is not so sure about several highly polarizing issues still facing the Legislature, including discounted tuition rates for undocumented students and recognizing civil unions between same-sex couples.

The so-called “Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow” (ASSET) bill is facing a sharp divide, with Republicans opposing the legislation over concerns about legitimizing illegal immigration. Similar legislation died last year in a Republican-controlled committee after the bill made its way through the Democratic-led Senate.

This year’s Senate Bill 15, sponsored by Johnston, would create a new tuition category for undocumented students who have attended a public or private high school in Colorado for three or more years, and have been admitted to a college or university in Colorado within one year of graduating from high school. Johnston says undocumented students in this category would still pay more than the in-state rate, about $2,000 more per year.

The legislation has languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate for over two months, as sponsors work to get all the votes they can before the bill moves over to the House, which it is likely to do on a party-line vote. Sponsors have the powerful support of Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, who chairs the House Education Committee. But Todd is concerned that Republican leadership will assign ASSET to a so-called “kill” committee before it makes its way to the House floor for debate.

“Before we do too much Kumbaya, I do want to come back and say that… there’s the ASSET bill,” said Todd.

Johnston himself, who sponsors the bill, joked to a room full of laughs at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver, “I’m sure my Republican friends will support it.”

Todd has similar concerns about civil unions legislation, Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, which is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill would legalize civil unions, giving gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights enjoyed by married men and women.

Similar legislation died last year in the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, and proponents are concerned that the bill will face a similar fate this year. The issue of giving the legislation a fair hearing on the House floor is especially important this year, as proponents have been working to gain the support of Republican lawmakers who do not oppose the social wedge issue.

Todd hopes that both civil unions and ASSET make it to the House floor for full debates in both chambers.
“I’m hoping that we get to debate it on the floor of the House; we were not been able to last year, so I’m hoping that this year we will be able to, and there is also the civil unions bill that will come up, and again, that will pass through the Senate, I’m sure, and then depending on which committee it is assigned to in the House, will it be a bill that will be debatable?” she asked.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, has said that both measures will receive fair hearings, but he has not elaborated beyond that statement. McNulty is likely to argue that the House Judiciary Committee is still the appropriate committee for the civil unions legislation, which could doom the bill again this year. The House Education Committee would be the likely committee for ASSET, which is where Massey’s vote would become so critical.

Roberts explained that it is often the wedge social issues that cause partisan splits at the Legislature, pointing out that despite the bickering, lawmakers are still committed to what’s best for the state, especially when it comes to creating jobs and balancing the budget.

“It’s very easy to poke fun at [the Legislature], it’s very easy to get very frustrated with it, but it is what we do in Colorado, it’s what drew me here to Colorado, is that we are in the boat together,” she said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com