Springs Dems, GOP gang up on budget woes

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When the Democrats and Republicans in El Paso County’s legislative delegation talk about forging a bipartisan effort to cure Colorado’s economic woes, they sound a lot like the members of an Indiana Jones expedition — with an equally colorful cast of characters charting divergent paths to the treasure.

Perhaps the task is more daunting for the Republicans from this conservative bastion. They are adjusting to harsh realities: the loss of a third legislative seat to the “blue” column, diminished muscle under the Democrat-dominated Capitol dome and a no-frill, no-thrill search for funds and cuts to offset a $600-million-plus state budget shortfall.

Democratic Sen. John Morse and Reps. Michael Merrifield and Dennis Apuan will forge a team effort with GOP Senators Bill Cadman, Keith King and Dave Schultheis as well as Reps. Bob Gardner, Kent Lambert, Larry Liston, Marsha Looper, Amy Stephens and Mark Waller.

“We have to quit this partisan bickering,” declared Merrifield. “We have to consider everything, and we won’t look at partial fixes to this budget crisis.”

“It’s not us going up against them. It’s all of us up against the budget,” said Waller, sounding docile compared to his House District 15 predecessor, Douglas Bruce.

“Any bill with any fiscal impact will be dead before it hits a committee,” said Schultheis. That sentiment was shared by nearly every member of the delegation.

“This session is focused on balancing the budget and the economy — helping businesses — which helps create jobs,” said Looper. “We have to work in a bipartisan way in order to accomplish these goals.”

Members of the team agree on most of the top priorities: Stimulate job growth in the tough economic climate, balance the state budget and bolster the transportation infrastructure.

Both sides of the aisle have indicated support for increased funding to improve and repair bridges, roads and transportation — projects that create thousands of badly needed jobs.

“Transportation should be left on the table. If we want the economy to get rolling again, we need to maintain and improve infrastructure,” said Schultheis.

Liston said that transportation infrastructure is “the highest priority for funding. Everything else should be subject to the scalpel, the knife or the ax. Pick your poison!”

“These are excruciating decisions,” said Liston. “No matter what we do, we’ll be on somebody’s shit list.”

However, not all legislators plan to rubberstamp funding for infrastructure — particularly if that funding creates more debt.

“Transportation is a high priority, but at the end of the day, we have to cut the budget,” said Waller. “We have to focus on the budget crisis and the economy — and forget about everything else.”

State employees, education and other proposed cuts

Because of federal and state constitutional mandates, the Legislature is limited in budget areas that can be cut — primarily higher education and transportation. Democrats generally have given higher priority than Republicans to funding public and higher education programs.

On the chopping block is funding for higher education.

“We need to remove the cap on state college tuition and let the university system become more competitive in the free market,” said Schultheis.

Liston agreed, but went a step further. He called for a salary audit of administrators and professors — some, he said, earn $150,000 to $400,000 a year. Gov. Bill Ritter has called for a freeze on state employee salaries, but Liston envisions deeper cuts.

“An audit of administrators alone would be appalling,” said Liston. “The public would be shocked!”

The Colorado Springs legislator also wants to explore cuts in public education — preschool through grade 12 — and to eliminate unnecessary or duplicate special education programs.

“Public schools don’t need new books and computers every year,” said Liston. “We need to get back to basics in education — eliminate before- and after-school care and special education programs.”

Merrifield sniped, “Obviously, Larry Liston has no understanding of the state Constitution,” said Merrifield, adding that last November, Colorado voters passed Amendment 23, which set aside more funding for the public schools. “It’s off the table!”

Liston countered, “People were sold something patently false!”

He said voters never would have approved Amendment 23 had they known the measure would make it impossible to divert the money in times of dire economic straits — like now.

“I’ll agree to have the voters reconsider Amendment 23 if he agrees to roll back TABOR,” retorted Merrifield.

Repealing or altering either Amendments 23 or TABOR (the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights) would require voters’ approval.

According to Liston, the budget debt would be deeper if it weren’t for TABOR, which, essentially, returns excess general funds to the voters.

King said he has proposed a bill to expand access to higher education courses for high school teenagers. It would create state funding for 60 programs to enable students to earn high school diplomas and associates’ degrees at the same time. The program would be open to public school and home school students.

King said the funding would be derived from other budget cuts. However, he acknowledged that “bills with fiscal impact will be hard to pass.”

Other proposed budget cuts would trim salaries and pensions for state employees, reduce the legislative session from 120 days to 90 days and eliminate resolutions.

“Resolutions won’t be eliminated,” said King. “It wouldn’t make any significant cut in the budget. They only take up two days of the session.”

They cost more than just two days of the session, said Schultheis.

“Resolutions cost a lot of money for legislative staff to research and validate them — it takes at least a couple of weeks of staff time. This is something we could eliminate for a couple of years for a cost savings,” he said.

Liston also would like to freeze cost-of-living increases for state employees and retirees — but he admits that could be an uphill battle.

“It’s a sacred cow! It’s a golden goose!” said Liston, adding that a large number of retirees are earning
far more than they did as state employees.

“People in the real world have had to tighten their belts. Some have lost their jobs and fear losing their homes. Many people have taken hits to their pensions — massive hits!” declared Liston. “It’s time to get real!”

More disagreement on funding sources

The legislative delegation diverges when it comes to identifying funding sources. Democrats will consider raising fees and taxes, much to the chagrin of Republicans, who oppose loading any more burdens onto cash-strapped taxpayers.

“You can either raise taxes and fees — creating a greater burden on taxpayers — or you stimulate the economy and encourage taxpayers to spend more money,” said Waller.

“Creating new fees or increasing existing fees is the same thing as a tax increase. It’s a prescription for disaster!” he declared.

Waller also wants to reduce taxes on businesses so that they can hire more employees. The state would recoup the “tax break” loss through the employees, who would spend their paychecks — spurring revenues for businesses and the state.

Liston also thinks the Democrats will push fee and tax hikes to minimize budget slashing.

“They’ve done it time and time again,” he said. “The public will react negatively to any more tax and fee increases.”

Democrats are banking on the federal stimulus package — a multimillion-dollar inoculation for transportation and infrastructure projects.

El Paso County Republican legislators are either lukewarm or thumbs-down on adding to the staggering federal debt.

“I have my reservations about it. But if they do it, Colorado ought to get its modest share,” said Liston.

Both Lambert and Schultheis are adamantly opposed to taking a federal bailout package.

“We’re going to pay a huge price for this federal bailout,” said Schultheis.

“I shudder for my children and grandchildren — and yours — who will be strapped with the burden of paying this money back in the long range. We are spending billions with no control, oversight or accountability.

“Where does it stop?” he asked.

A proposal to sell interest in state-owned property in the form of certificates of participation (COPs) garnered more raving-mad reviews than standing ovations. The quick-cash funding mechanism is being pushed by Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and House Minority Leader Mike May.

The funding proposal was panned by most of the El Paso County delegation. The exception might be House Minority Caucus chair Stephens, who joined Senate Minority Caucus chair Mike Kopp in delivering a counter rperspective to Gov. Ritter’s State of State address.

“We must move swiftly to do what we can to help our state through these trying times. We must act quickly and deliberately to embrace realistic, practical solutions to the myriad of challenges facing our state,” said Stephens.

She opposed higher taxes and fees and regulations — all of which she said would impede economic recovery. The means of recovery, she said, would be explained by her partner, Kopp.

“…Republicans are proposing to put the state’s considerable assets to work — rather than resorting to sweeping tax and fee hikes. By leveraging a fraction of the billions of dollars in unused equity Colorado has in its state buildings, the state can quickly and effectively raise the funds needed to fix unsafe bridges,” said Kopp, of Littleton, referring to COPs.

But several other legislators in the county delegation oppose the use of COPs.

“If this is a bipartisan approach to balancing the budget, count me out. The people of Colorado are going to react loudly,” said Lambert, chair of the House Minority budget task force. “I’m not compromising my principles!”

Lambert was so astounded by the minority leadership’s flash-fund plan, you could almost hear him echoing Indy’s famous line from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“Are you trying to develop a sense of humor, or am I going deaf?”

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com