More money for the budget, more fights at legislature

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate this week will take up a $23 billion budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year after the House last week passed a largely partisan spending plan that resulted in plenty of fights over how to fund the state.

The overall budget proposal represents a $1.1 billion increase over the current budget, and marks the most money lawmakers have had to spend in nearly a decade.

More money represents more fights over spending proposals, with lawmakers battling over money for their districts. More than 40 amendments were introduced during House debate on Thursday, with minority Republicans fighting especially hard for general fund dollars to fix ailing transportation infrastructure and increase funding for schools.

The general fund for the upcoming fiscal year is about $8.7 billion, compared to $8.1 billion in the current year.

Only one Republican joined the majority Democrats in passing next fiscal year’s budget; it passed on Friday 37-27. Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, backed the budget proposal. The JBC tried to stay united, despite partisan wrangling outside the committee.

Two years ago, nearly every lawmaker backed one of the most bipartisan budgets in Colorado history when there was a split legislature. Last year, several Republicans joined Democrats in backing the budget when Democrats controlled both chambers.

But this year the fights were compounded. Even though Gerou backed the budget, she raised several issues with Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, the chairwoman of the JBC, which is responsible for crafting the budget proposal.

Gerou questioned Duran’s commitment to listening to the minority. Several Republicans have accused Duran of ignoring their pleas as she oversaw the JBC.

“I will pull my name off this bill…” Gerou threatened from the House floor on Thursday afternoon during the first hour of budget debate when Duran repeatedly opposed Republican amendments and encouraged her colleagues to reject the proposals.

“You don’t have to be subject to snide comments,” Gerou advised her Republican colleagues.

One of the biggest fights between Republicans and Democrats was over an amendment by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, to appropriate $1.7 million for the implementation of a bill that would crack down on repeat DUI offenders.

With several bills stuck in appropriations, lawmakers are desperately fighting for money in the budget so that their bills don’t die over funding concerns. Waller was outraged that he couldn’t convince Democrats to add the funding to the so-called “Long Bill.”

“Rep. Duran, I went to you last week, you turned around and walked away from me. You wouldn’t even engage me in conversation,” lamented Waller.

“Just yesterday… I tried to engage you again… but you turned around and walked away from me, you wouldn’t even have a conversation with me,” he continued.

But Duran was defiant, pointing out that she is simply one vote on the JBC, and that she doesn’t control the outcome of the bipartisan committee.

“There was not any other member of the JBC raising this as it needed to be in the Long Bill…” explained Duran. “This bill is ultimately going to live or die based on its merits.”

Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, came to Duran’s rescue and attempted to quell tensions: “I know we get heated down here, but I will say we have three members in this chamber and three members in the other chamber who do amazing work on the Joint Budget Committee,” he said in the midst of the attacks lobbed at Duran.

Democrats led their own effort for a spending amendment when Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, pushed for reducing private prisons spending by $500,000 to fund homeless prevention programs. The amendment first passed during second reading, but then died when the proposal came up again during the Committee of the Whole.

Republicans argued that the bill would hurt rural Colorado, where private prisons are prevalent.

“This is not an attack on rural Colorado; this is addressing an issue that is prevalent throughout all of Colorado, including rural areas,” explained Salazar.

Gerou repeatedly invoked the name of former prisons chief Tom Clements, who was assassinated last year by a parolee. She said reducing prisons spending would be an insult to Clements.

But Duran was appalled by Georu’s use of Clements, suggesting, “I think we should stop invoking Director Clements’ name in these conversations out of respect…”

Gerou responded, “Not talking about Director Clements’ death does not mean that it didn’t happen. We are honoring the death of Director Clements… you may not like… what I do or what I say at this well, but I’m within my rights to say so.”

Another social issue related to spending popped up when Republicans attempted to use the Long Bill to prohibit the use of public benefits at ATM machines located in strip clubs and retail marijuana stores.

“When we give out these EBT cards, they’re really for or they should be for the people who truly need them to feed their families, to feed their children… When we take the taxpayer dollars and give it to the people that are in need, they [should be] using it to feed themselves and to feed their children; not to use it for extracurricular activities,” said Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada.

But Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, pointed out that often in poorer communities, a strip club or marijuana center might be the closest location that has an ATM.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” she said. “People are struggling… they’re not using these cards to buy marijuana, or to go to a strip club. Why do we have to demonize poor people?”

Fighting for schools

Some of the more policy-focused spending issues also saw contentious debate, including proposals to fund K-12 education. The current proposal calls for an increase of about $275 million for K-12, along with another $100 million more for higher education.

Republicans, led by House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland, proposed several amendments that would have added funding to K-12 by reducing money from such things like film incentives, health and human services and controlled maintenance.

At one point late in the night after nearly eight hours of debate, DelGrosso started singing for education, “I believe the children are our future,” he sang with a smile on his face, referring to Whitney Houston’s song.

House Democrats sent out a tweet earlier in the night that infuriated Republicans. The tweet read, “If we lavish $$$ on K-12 in a good year, we’ll have to cut them in a lean year. Funding rollercoaster ill serves our students #coleg.”

Ferrandino points out that increasing base funding could mean additional funding mandates in future years because the state constitution requires annual school funding increases. A particularly large cut in the negative factor could result in calculated spending mandates that the state can’t afford in future years.

But Republicans found the Democrats’ response to be surprising.

“Democrats think restoring cuts to our schools is lavishing money on them?” asked Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, who sits on the House Education Committee. “Every school district in Colorado experienced significant cuts during the recession and we have heard loud and clear that school’s number one priority this year is restoring those cuts. It’s concerning that Democrats think restoring funding to K-12 education is lavishing money on them.”

There was, however, some agreement over capital development. The JBC stunned Capitol observers recently when it chose not to include several projects on a funding list, including some colleges.

But Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, devised a plan that would allow an estimated $119 million for the capital development projects. Included on the list are Fort Lewis College, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, Denver’s Auraria campus and various other maintenance projects. His amendment was attached to the Long Bill.

Gerou did not vote for the amendment, but she explained that she had to do so because she is a member of the JBC. In reality, she actually supports coming up with the money.

“This is really awesome. Of course I’ll be a ‘no,’ but this is really awesome. Don’t do what I’m doing,” Gerou advised her colleagues.

Fun and games

While the Long Bill debate is always long and hard, the fights often lead way to civility and respect. That was apparent as the more than nine hours of debate came to an end on Thursday night.

Lawmakers started a friendly pool in which legislators wagered on what time the debate would come to an end. As the clock ticked, some lawmakers took to the well to jokingly kill time in order to better position themselves or their colleagues to win the pool.

“The fact that we can do it with respect and civility translates to the people of Colorado,” said Gerou, who just hours earlier had threatened to pull her name off of the bill.

“On my side of the aisle I’ve never seen… the level of interest and hard work and thoughtful amendments that you all got offered. I really appreciate that,” added Gerou.

“We were able to balance competing priorities and create a budget that will help all communities across Colorado,” added Duran. “We debated a budget that will speed our recovery from last year’s floods and wildfires, boost K-12 and higher education and strengthen the modern, tech-dominated economy… I am proud of our budget and the work that went into it.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com