Senate approves budget with overwhelmingly bipartisan support

The Colorado Statesman

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper likes to brag about Colorado’s bipartisan approach to politics, often saying, “Unlike Washington, D.C., we have shown the rest of the country that Colorado is a place where things get done.”

He certainly has something to boast about now on his next trip inside the Beltway, after the state Senate on Thursday gave overwhelming approval to a $19 billion 2012-13 fiscal year budget that passed on a vote of 30-5. The Senate’s vote comes one week after the House offered a spectacular showing of bipartisanship, passing its version of the so-called ‘Long Bill’ by a stunning vote of 64-1.

With only minor differences between the two budgets — differences that will still certainly be sticking points as lawmakers head to conference committee — Colorado is poised to pass a $7.5 billion General Fund spending plan without hardly any partisan wrangling at all. In fact, most of the disagreements that came up during budget debates in the Senate crossed party lines.

For example, there was bipartisan opposition to multiple attempts to raid the state’s controlled maintenance and emergency reserve funds for support services for local governments, the poor, elderly and disabled, with Joint Budget Committee members and other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle speaking up against such spending plans.

Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, was forced to vote against many of her Democratic colleagues’ amendments, noting, “I am going to be a ‘no’ vote on all of the amendments where the funding is coming from controlled maintenance. I support many of these concepts and I think we need to look at the issues, but I feel that it is very important that controlled maintenance should stay controlled maintenance.”

Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, who in January is exiting the Legislature after reapportionment drew her in with Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, led perhaps the most impassioned cry for state spending on Wednesday, during preliminary debate of the budget. Foster wanted to restore $194,986 to the state’s Medicaid program that provides infant circumcisions. At times, Foster was shouting to her colleagues, nearly crying as she begged for the money. She was even told by Senate leadership to tone down her comments, but Foster continued her plea.

“I understand today that there’s real politics going on, and I am sorry that this bill has fallen in the middle of politics as usual in this building,” she scolded her colleagues. “We hunker down our groups, our caucus, both sides, and we say we are not supporting anything that is funded out of this particular fund. Well, that’s just dandy.”

The amendment failed after concerns over costs were raised, with Republican lawmakers arguing that it would be a perfect opportunity for charities and other non-profits to step in to provide the support service.

Another controversial issue that fell more on the social side of the debate rather than the fiscal side — though the issue certainly plays into state spending — was whether to ban the use of state cash-assistance cards at ATMs in casinos, strip clubs or liquor stores. The proposal is not a new one at the Legislature, with several failed attempts over the years to bar such use. The concerns come in response to news reports of cash withdrawals at the seemingly seedy, recreational locations.

“It’s supposed to be a safety net, not a party net,” argued Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, who offered the amendment.

But as always, Democrats raised concerns that in some low-income neighborhoods where the cash-assistance cards are often used, liquor stores serve as banks, offering the only ATM machines in the area. Others note that the withdrawals at such locations represent a small fraction of the usage.

Multiple attempts to secure money for veterans’ services also came up over the course of the debate, but overall those amendments were struck down. Some lawmakers found it insulting that sponsors were suggesting that the Legislature took no interest in veterans affairs, noting that the issue came down to spending, not commitment.

“I can’t think of any part of my family that doesn’t include veterans, including myself… There’s nobody in this chamber that doesn’t support veterans. So, to assert that somebody who opposes this amendment at this time on this Long Bill is in opposition to veterans is not accurate, it’s not true, and frankly it’s absurd, it’s offensive,” said Cadman.

The Senate did pass an amendment that shifts $2 million from private prisons to services for veterans.

There are many similarities between major issues in the House and Senate budgets, which will likely lead to easy rectification for budget writers.

As in the House version, a rosier budget picture allowed for the restoration of the nearly $100 million annual property tax break for seniors, and it allowed lawmakers to scale down a 2 percent personnel vacancy savings to 1 percent. 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.

Also included in both the House and Senate budgets 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.

With only minor changes and tweaks left ahead in the process, some lawmakers joked on Wednesday and Thursday that they should change the name of the ‘Long Bill’ this year to the ‘Short Bill,’ something that had many cheering.

Every year lawmakers throw a small amount of money into a pool to take bets on when the debate would end. Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, for example, had 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. He was only about an hour off, and most lawmakers commented on how odd it was to see such early evening predications in the pool. They said it was a sign of bipartisanship and dedication by the JBC.

“The state’s economy has improved, but we still had some tough choices to make,” said Sen. Mary Hodge, R-Brighton, vice-chairwoman of the JBC. “We fought hard to protect things important to Coloradans, including school funding, services for seniors and people with disabilities, and we were able to secure funding for economic development to continue creating new jobs.”

“Although we had some contentious points, I think we had a lot of conciliation throughout this budget,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the JBC. “This budget may not be totally perfect, but it’s pretty close.”

The 2012-13 budget

Saving for the future:
• Balances to the most conservative revenue forecast
• Maintains a 4 percent statutory reserve
• Increases liquid assets in the constitutional emergency TABOR reserve by $13 million
• Sets aside $100 million in the State Education Fund, a savings account for K-12

Funding education:
• Fully funds K-12 education on a per-student basis
• Funds the implementation of the Educator Effectiveness program, which will link teacher promotions and salaries to student academic growth
• Fully reverses the Governor’s proposed cuts to the Higher Education Colorado Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends to last year’s level and helps reduce student tuition costs

Reducing the size of government:
• Immediately reduces the excess capacity in the state’s prison system by closing one facility and funds an independent study to reduce excess capacity and costs in the future
• Cuts 1 percent from the personnel budgets of most departments. Public safety personnel are exempt
• Cuts 171.7 FTE

Begins the reversal of the policy of raiding cash funds and other budgeting gimmicks of the past:
• Restores all $46.8 million of severance tax funding to counties and major water projects
• Reverses part of the “payday shift” enacted in 2003 that was used to artificially push payroll into the next fiscal year
• Begins the process of ending the policy of tapping cash funds to pay for General Fund spending

—Peter@coloradostatesman.com