Budget will be larger, but that could lead to more contentious discussions

Plus return of gun issues could also wreak havoc in the Senate
The Colorado Statesman

Even though the state budget is a good three months away from being seriously debated, Senate leaders believe the so-called Long Bill could lead to one of the most significant political conversations of the upcoming legislative session.

The fight is looming, as lawmakers will have $1.4 billion more to spend in fiscal year 2014-15 than was budgeted for the current fiscal year.

State economists recently said the state would end fiscal year 2013-14 with $120.5 million more than the required reserve, and predicted that the state would have about 16.2 percent more to spend in the upcoming fiscal year.

Even before that economic forecast was released on Dec. 20, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, proposed a $24.03 billion state budget in early November that would represent an increase of $1.02 billion in total funds and $389 million from the General Fund. That marks a 4.4 percent increase in total funds and a 4.5 percent increase from the General Fund.

Senate president-elect Morgan Carroll, R-Aurora, holds up sample legislation she hopes to see in the upcoming session that begins Jan. 8. Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, left, and Senate Pro Tempore Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, met with Statehouse reporters Jan. 2 to discuss legislative priorities for Senate Democrats, who control the chamber 18-17.

Highlights of the governor’s budget proposal include:

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colo. Springs, is ready for the start of the session.div style="width: 100%; text-align: right;">Photos by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

• An increase of $223, or about 3.4 percent, for K-12 education per pupil;

• An additional $101.8 million, or about 15.5 percent, for higher education;

• Additional money to reduce wait times at driver’s license offices; and

• Establishing a 6.5 percent General Fund reserve.

But before the budget can reach the governor’s desk, the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee and both chambers of the legislature must reach a compromise. With the looming 2014 elections, and a legislature that is already divided, a budget with more money to spend could lead to contentious discussions.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, says Capitol observers should pay close attention to budget talks in the upcoming session that begins on Jan. 8. It is expected that Carroll will be confirmed as the next Senate president when the session gets underway.

“The budget is in some ways maybe the biggest item we do deliver this year,” Carroll told The Colorado Statesman during an interview on Dec. 26. “That’s in part because we’re starting to see some economic recovery. As more dollars come in, there tends to be more fighting over those new dollars… And there’s a host of issues in Colorado that are arguably sort of short-changed.”

Carroll said the budget discussions would likely come down to a difference in philosophy between Republicans and Democrats over spending.

“It’s going to be more about how do you reflect different values within a budget,” said Carroll. “Typically, when more money comes in, the Republicans like to increase private prison provider rates… while we tend to do things like invest in K-12.”

That said, Carroll believes there is room for bipartisanship, pointing out that Colorado historically passes a bipartisan budget with few votes in opposition. Colorado lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to pass a balanced budget each fiscal year.

“Unlike D.C., we balance our budget every year, and we have always had a bipartisan budget, and I think that gets lost,” surmised Carroll. “The process of how you get there might be different coalitions on each different issue. But I believe we will see shared interests with both Democrats and Republicans…”

Carroll believes there will be common interests on education, parole and corrections reforms, as well as mental health funding. She hopes that 95 percent of the budget will be passed in a bipartisan fashion.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, does not doubt that his Senate colleagues will face a fight over the budget in the upcoming session. But he said Senate Republicans are supportive of the governor’s proposal and hopes that the two sides of the aisle can find consensus.

“The budget is looking good, and I think we’re pretty supportive of a lot of the stuff that the governor’s proposed, and I’ve had a lot of discussions with the budget office, and frankly, Colorado is doing better on the budget than we have in the past,” Cadman said at a media availability on Jan. 2. “We’re excited that they’re going to extend the reserves, which gives us a little more flexibility, it’s like adding to your checking account as far as cash flow.”

Republican ‘repeal-a-thon’ on gun control?

Where bipartisanship is likely to be lost is over addressing gun control bills pushed by Democrats in the last legislative session. Republicans have acknowledged that they will attempt to either repeal or tweak some of the new laws. And with Hickenlooper signaling that he would at least consider changes to the existing laws, Republicans may have room to work with.

A divisive session last year resulted in Democrats pushing for a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds, and a mandate for universal background checks.

Gun rights groups have sued to overturn the laws, arguing that they violate the Second Amendment.

But even before the lawsuit is settled, Republicans have already vowed to work in the upcoming session on repealing the laws. Carroll describes the agenda as a Republican “repeal-a-thon” that has little hope in a Democratic-controlled legislature.

There are few issues that carry as much drama as the gun control debate, especially after two successful recall attempts this summer in which Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo were ousted from office over their support of the measures.

A second Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned rather than go through the painful and costly recall election.

With Hudak’s resignation, Senate Democrats were left with only a one-seat majority heading into the 2014 elections.

Carroll does not deny that a resurrected gun control debate will lead to an inflammation in the upper chamber.

“I anticipate sort of a repeal-a-thon of all of the gun safety measures that were out there,” predicted Carroll. “That said, one of the things that was lost in all of the noise last year is we actually made almost every change or suggestion that anyone had suggested.”

Carroll said that her Democratic caucus is not likely to introduce more gun control measures in the upcoming session. She said lawmakers are first waiting to see how the current laws play out.

A recent study by the Department of Public Safety indicated that since the background check law went into effect in July, of nearly 5,000 checks, 72 private sales were blocked because the would-be buyer was prohibited from purchasing a firearm.

“What we’re just going to see is a wholesale effort to repeal all of the gun safety measures in Colorado, and I don’t think that’s a good idea,” opined Carroll.

Instead, she believes the two sides of the aisle should come together to work on solutions to ongoing violence, such as the recent Arapahoe High School shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old female student.

“We need to start having a little better conversation just about violence overall,” said Carroll, pointing to issues surrounding mental health. “We need to step way, way back and find out everything we can understand… I want to start off with a fairly broad conversation to figure out what we know.”

Cadman supports his colleagues in a pushback against current gun control laws, pointing out that Colorado voters appear to be resistant. He said that even when it comes to background checks there is room for improvement, pointing to potential problems, such as not being able to transfer weapons within a family.

Coloradans support universal background checks by as much as 85 percent, according to polling. But Cadman said that support drops when Coloradans learn about all aspects of the law.

He said Senate Republicans would introduce a wide range of bills addressing the gun laws from last year, including repeals of the magazine ban; tweaks to universal background check mandates; and changes to a measure that makes it harder for those accused of domestic violence to possess a firearm.

One issue that Republicans remain concerned about is driving gun-related businesses from the state. On Thursday, Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp, the makers of high-capacity ammunition magazines, announced that it would relocate to Texas and Wyoming, making good on a threat from last year.

Meanwhile, voters may be asked to weigh in on a variety of gun control issues on both sides of the debate. One question may seek to repeal the magazine ban, while another proposal would ask voters to ban concealed weapons on college campuses.

“There are so many broken pieces along that that got deeper than, ‘We just want to stop guns from getting in the hands of criminals,’” explained Cadman. “Everybody does. We do too. But what they did was they stopped people who had a legitimate right and access to a weapon from getting to a weapon to defend themselves or defend their families. That’s the problem.”

Cadman last year had told an emotional and personal story during debate on the domestic violence bill. Despite his own personal experience with domestic violence as a child, he expressed his skepticism of the bill.

He is hopeful that Republicans and Democrats can come together this year to make the gun control laws better.

“Maybe there’s a place that [Democrats] can meet in finding a fix to some of the things that have been identified…” expressed Cadman. “This has been identified across the state as having created some problems. So, we’ll see.”

Education?

In addition to addressing violence, both sides of the aisle agree that education reform should be a priority in the upcoming session. But how to reach those objectives remains controversial.

Voters this November widely rejected a Democratic proposal to fund education reform with a nearly $1 billion tax increase. Republicans claimed victory, suggesting that any reform should come from existing dollars.

Carroll does not doubt that voters moved in a different direction than Democrats had hoped for. But she believes progress can be made from existing resources, especially as more dollars for the budget are realized.

She would like a focus placed on early childhood education and dropout prevention.

“I don’t think the conversation about K-12 funding goes away,” said Carroll. “I think some of the ideas about changing some of what’s outdated in our school finance formula are still ripe for discussion.”

Without additional funding, Carroll remains concerned as to how far the state can go with its education reforms.

“I guess what I’m trying to do is keep the door open,” she said. “It may mean that there are some portions of this that if you’re not adding unfunded mandates, then you’re actually making it easier for local schools to focus on teaching rather than jumping through a bunch of red tape.

“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” Carroll continued. “I just want to leave the door open for the fact that there may be a conversation.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to higher education, Carroll also believes there is room for progress given the rosier budget forecast. She said one focus for Senate Democrats would be on the affordability of colleges and trade schools.

The first bill that Senate Democrats expect to introduce this year — signaling the centerpiece of their agenda — would invest an additional $101 million to higher education and cap tuition increases at 6 percent for in-state undergrad students.

“I’ve been following nationally what the debt loads have been for people that are not going to college anymore, having really seriously reduced job choices when they get out, where careers are being decided by debt load rather than what people really want to do,” explained Carroll. “So, college affordability is going to be a big priority.”

Similarly, Carroll says the skyrocketing costs of child care also impacts the livelihoods and careers of Coloradans. Senate Democrats say they will run a bill that would restore the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which provides child care assistance to low-income families.

“If we can do it, to try to put some kind of funding back to a child care tax credit…” said Carroll. “Between your jobs, can you pay your bills? Can you afford to go to school? Can you afford to send your kids to day care?”

Cadman is also looking towards education reform, confident that some of the proposals last year can be accomplished without a tax increase, as proposed under Amendment 66.

“Obviously we’re supportive of more money in K-12 without adding taxes,” he said. “That’s pretty much a done deal. But we have money.”

Cadman said Senate Republicans are also working on measures concerning higher education, adding, “We’ve been discussing some stuff about higher-ed; nothing’s been concrete yet, but… our best time here is when we actually have everyone in the building and we have the opportunity to work together.”

Oil and gas

Similar to education reform, issues surrounding oil and gas regulations have also become a prime topic for local communities.

A total of five municipalities — Longmont, Lafayette, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield — have passed bans on hydraulic fracturing, or so-called “fracking.”

Longmont, Lafayette and Fort Collins are facing lawsuits filed by the industry seeking to overturn the bans.

Meanwhile, Colorado voters may be asked to approve a ballot initiative that would give local communities the power to ban fracking and other oil and gas regulatory issues.

Carroll had supported an ambitious agenda last legislative session to attempt to crack down on the oil and gas industry. Bills around mandatory-minimum fines and conflicts of interest within the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission were either killed or watered-down after Hickenlooper’s lobbying team expressed concerns.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist, has established a supportive relationship of the industry, causing ire within some of his Democratic base, especially amongst environmentalists.

Heading into the 2014 elections, Democrats may be hesitant to send Hickenlooper oil and gas bills that are overly controversial.

Carroll did not seem too ambitious this year about the oil and gas agenda, suggesting that lawmakers should first watch rulemaking pushed by the governor that would regulate methane and other emissions related to oil and gas development.

“I expect that we will be following the air quality rulemaking very closely to see how that goes, and I do expect we will see a return of an attempt to kind of update fines for noncompliance in the case of environmental contamination,” said Carroll.

She said it’s possible that Senate Democrats may try to address the tug-of-war between the desires of local communities and the state and industry.

“Particularly in light of the tension between local communities banning [fracking] versus lawsuits, it may be… worth having a bigger conversation about even some of those pressure points like letting some of those local communities customize a little bit how they handle this in their own backyard,” explained Carroll.

Cadman does not doubt that oil and gas issues will ignite again this year, but he cautioned against turning the conversation into a partisan debate.

“Oil and gas again will obviously take center stage at some point, and I’m hearing murmurs about what could be happening outside as far as initiating measures, or perhaps from inside this building from referred measures regarding oil and gas and air quality…” he said.

“We don’t need 20-hour days of the most partisan debates night after night after night, week after week, like we saw last year,” he said.

Republicans are likely to once again go after Senate Bill 252 from last year, which mandated a 20 percent rural renewable energy standard for cooperatives by 2020. One proposal being considered would lower that to 15 percent.

“That’s probably the one generating the most outcry from the rural folks…” explained Cadman. “Rural Colorado is still struggling…”

Rural Colorado has taken a more prominent role in the political debate after voters in 11 counties this past November were asked whether they would like to explore seceding from the state. The 51st state initiative was halted after only five of those counties passed the question.

Senate Democrats unveiled their rural agenda by suggesting a measure expanding Internet access to rural communities.

“Rural Colorado is known to be resourceful, but businesses are struggling in areas with little or no high-speed Internet,” explained Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass. “We need to fix that. With dependable Internet access, our education system will have the connectivity to better develop our workforce and rural small businesses will be able to further compete globally.”

Reaching across the aisle

With all the issues facing lawmakers this year, both Cadman and Carroll hope to be able to work together to lead their caucuses through a bipartisan session. Carroll has already been in contact with Cadman, and the two Senate leaders expect to work more closely as the session gets underway.

But despite the hope for bipartisanship, both sides of the aisle are skeptical that they will be able to get through the session without the usual fights.

“People keep asking, ‘What do you think the session is going to be like?’” said Cadman. “The real people to ask are the ones that are still in control. What are you going to do different this year that you did last year? Are you going to continue with some very significant policy changes?

“I would hope that at the end of the session… although it’s an election year, it doesn’t generate the same outcome that the last session did,” Cadman hoped.

Carroll pointed out that after the recall elections and a divisive session last year, it would be tough to keep passions quelled. The election year only adds fuel to the fire.

“Odd is one way to put it,” she said.

“While it’s been a very difficult year personally for many of us, it can’t become an excuse to not keep our eye on the ball and figure out what the needs are and just go do it,” added Carroll. “We don’t have the luxury to be shell-shocked…”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com