Dem, GOP lawmakers share sushi and budget woes

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Maybe it was the sushi. Maybe it was the gravity of the tough economic situation facing Colorado in the coming year. Whatever the reason, members of the state’s legislative leadership acted overly gracious toward one another at Tuesday’s legislative sneak preview luncheon, an annual event hosted by the Denver office of Greenberg Traurig, an international law firm.

The aura of bipartisanship offered hope that politics could lend way to statesmanship during this year’s legislative session.

Then again, this is the Legislature.

Democratic Senate President Peter Groff and Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, and Republican minority leaders Sen. Josh Penry and Rep. Mike May all agreed on the need to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure, increase jobs and improve the economy.

All, however, was not jolly. A budget shortfall estimated at anywhere from $280 million to $600 million quietly loomed over every policy area discussed during the hour-long forum moderated by 9News political reporter Adam Schrager.

“I think there will be a lot of conversation about transportation, about health care and about the budget,” Groff said. “I think the question is, ‘How do we make the very tough decisions and move this state forward even though we don’t have the kind of (money) we need to do the things we want?’ I think we have a unique opportunity —particularly with this leadership team — to work in a bipartisan fashion.

“We’re not trying to figure out what the Democratic answers are and what the Republican response will be, but what is the right solution for the state.”

May, serving his last session as House minority leader, agreed, saying, “I don’t think that anyone at this
table is going to use this (budget situation) to forward a political or
ideological bent.”

Penry, who attracted many compliments from Groff and Carroll, said he was impressed with the political capital each man spent within his own party to fight for such issues as education reform. That spirit, Penry said, has become one of his examples when he talks to his caucus about the best way to move forward in a bipartisan manner.

“I respect both of them for that, for those commitments,” he said.

Niceties aside, the foursome also acknowledged that they’re going to disagree on the best approach toward solving the state’s budget gap.

Groff said that — although the state can’t “fee its way to solving the transportation problems” — new fees ought to be on the table.

Penry and May, on the other hand, were wary.

“Although I think fees should be discussed, I don’t think we can fee our way to a solution,” Penry said. “We should hesitate on using new fees, especially at a time when people can afford it the least.”

They also found lots to disagree about concerning the best way to offer tax incentives to small businesses and concerning the best process to come up with rules for natural gas extraction.

Even then, however, everyone remained calm, cordial and accommodating.

Health care reform — always a point of heated discussion between Republicans and Democrats — probably won’t get off the ground this year, Carroll said.

“I think there will be some single-payer bills coming forth this year, but I don’t see any of them moving forward,” Carroll said.

Although the state’s higher education system is likely to take a large hit as lawmakers work to balance the budget, all four men agreed that it’s important for Colorado to maintain an affordable higher education system, both in order to attract new business and to help its residents compete in a global marketplace.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com