House comes together to support state budget

Only one vote against $19 billion plan
The Colorado Statesman

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship following a legislative session filled with bickering over how to fund the state budget, the House on Thursday backed a $7.5 billion general fund spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year by a vote of 64-1.

Only Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, voted against the $19 billion overall state budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, arguing that the proposal was not fiscally prudent enough. But the rest of his House colleagues backed the proposal after two days of debate and dozens of proposed amendments.

“Politics is compromise, and on a JBC with three Democrats and three Republicans we got through the budget process without a lot of acrimony,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, the House Democrat on the Joint Budget Committee. “That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the result. We could have put more resources into education, the disabled and low-income seniors, but we couldn’t because the senior property tax exemption diverted so much funding.”

The biggest sticking point early on in budget discussions surrounded funding for a property tax break for seniors. Republicans had wanted to fully restore the voter-approved tax break, but Democrats argued that the nearly $100-million program would cost education in Colorado. Following economic forecasts and projections that noted increased revenues and an additional nearly $200 million in spending money even after funding the property tax break, that fight came to an end.

The JBC also fought over state personnel vacancy savings, with Democrats arguing against a 2 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies’ payrolls. The two sides of the aisle eventually agreed to a 1 percent vacancy savings.

Lawmakers were also able to keep funding levels for per-pupil K-12 spending at current-year levels and to keep higher education funding at nearly its current level.

With the JBC debates out of the way, the House first took up the budget on Wednesday afternoon, debating into the night. A host of amendments were offered from both sides.

Democrats caught the Republicans’ attention by including an amendment that would have forbid the use of state money for vasectomies or the treatment of erectile dysfunction. The sponsor, Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said the amendment was to call attention to the Republicans’ recent attacks on female reproductive health care. Pabon ultimately withdrew the amendment.

Another amendment offered by Democrats, which failed in the Republican-controlled House, would have clarified that the state prohibition on public funding of abortion may not be applied to birth control.

Meanwhile, Republicans offered several amendments of their own, including one by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, which would take $4.2 million from the Department of Corrections to increase funding for full-day kindergarten. The amendment passed with bipartisan support.

Also included in the budget is the closure of Colorado State Penitentiary II in Cañon City, bringing a savings to the state of $13.5 million per year beginning after the prison’s first year of closure, scheduled for 2013.

Many of the arguments for diverting money from corrections or closing prisons revolved around a decline in inmate populations. Education advocates argue that the savings from corrections could be applied to education.

Democrats had wanted to divert $5.4 million from private prisons to transfer the money to early-childhood literacy and preschool programs, as well as to services for veterans and the developmentally disabled, but Republicans killed those proposals, concerned over impacts to local communities that benefit from jobs created by the private prison populations.

“Using the money we have saved by closing prisons, we can move the next generation of Colorado away from the jail houses and in to the world economy,” said Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, the sponsor of the amendment.

Ultimately, Republicans and Democrats compromised on Waller’s amendment that takes $4.2 million from the Department of Corrections for education.

Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, had offered an amendment to defund the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel, the agency charged with monitoring utility rates in the interest of ratepayers, with the goal of keeping rates low. Swalm argued that rates have not remained low, and therefore the agency should disband. Swalm ultimately said he was trying to send a message to the agency, and joined in voting against his own amendment, which failed on a unanimous vote.

Republicans, who historically have opposed budgets in the House, said they feel they reached a fair compromise on the upcoming fiscal year’s spending plan. In comparison, 14 Republicans opposed the budget last year, and that represented a record number of Republicans supporting the state budget.

“This year’s budget was historic,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, chair of the JBC. “I’m proud that House Republicans led the way to getting a budget passed by a 64-1 margin. That’s a record.”

“This budget is a responsible budget, one that increases funding for education, protects our seniors, invests in our students and helps to build a better Colorado,” added House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

The so-called “Long Bill” now heads to the Senate where the Democratic-controlled chamber is likely to make changes to amendments, which would send the bill to a conference committee.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com