Rep. Marostica's SB 228 defies GOP

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Taking a stand is never easy.

That was the lesson learned last week by Rep. Don Marostica, a Loveland Republican and Joint Budget Committee member, when he bucked Republican leadership and continued his sponsorship of Senate Bill 228. If passed, the bill would repeal the Arveschoug-Bird spending limit, a provision passed by the Legislature in 1991 that allows Colorado’s General Fund to grow by only 6 percent per year.

State Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, came under heat for his sponsorship of SB 228.

Arveschoug-Bird is considered by some to be the underpinning of Colorado’s fiscal conservatism and is gospel to most conservatives. Republicans say that without “the 6 percent rule,” as Arveschoug-Bird is known, the state’s budget would mushroom in boom years, forcing Colorado to make California-size budget cuts in bust years.

Democrats, however, argue that the 6 percent limit handcuffs the Legislature, makes sound budgeting practices impossible and virtually precludes any recovery from a recession because it “ratchets down” spending.

When Marostica was informed that such icons of conservatism as former GOP state senator and treasurer Mark Hillman and Independence Institute President Jon Caldara opposed his effort to overturn the 6 percent rule, he told a Rocky Mountain News reporter that his party’s leadership was being influenced by “has-beens” and “losers.”

Not the best choice of words.

After a hastily called meeting with House Minority Leader Mike May and Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams, Marostica acknowledged his regrettable rhetoric and promised to apologize to Hillman and Caldara.

However, he also vowed to continue his sponsorship of SB 228, which passed the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday on a 4-3 party-line vote and awaits second reading before the full body.

“Its usefulness has run out,” Marostica said of the 6 percent limit after a joint session of the House and Senate last week.

Marostica told his fellow legislators that although Colorado has been free of an economic inflation since 1982, one might be lurking in the near future.

“Inflation is really going to hurt us if we have Arveschoug-Bird in place,” Marostica said. “We need to take a good look at that and use those funds in a different way.

“We have to remember that Arveschoug-Bird has a ratchet effect, and we are really going to see (the pain of) that when we come out of this year, next year and in 2010-’11.”

Despite his apologies, Marostica’s break from party leadership will not be forgotten anytime soon and could have a lasting impact on his political future.

Taking a stand

Historically, members on both sides of Colorado’s legislative aisle who have taken a rogue path have felt the blow back. For some, the consequences were dire. For others, the transgressions eventually were forgotten.

It seems, however, that no one can defy the party elite without experiencing at least some retribution.

Before Marostica met with May and Wadhams, rumors circulated around the Capitol and in the blogosphere that leadership was going to pull his seat on the prestigious Joint Budget Committee. Others said the party was going to wait until the end of the legislative year before retaliating.

It’s possible that none of those predictions will come true and that his apologies to Hillman and Caldara will be the end of it. Time will tell.

“It is not uncommon for members to be on the other side of leaders on issues and votes, but this is different in that it is such a substantial and high-profile issue and one which goes to the heart of the modern Republican predisposition to ‘just say no’ to most anything which threatens their small-government, minimal-spending ideology,” said Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer, a Colorado political expert who has followed the state Legislature for more than 40 years.

Straayer said that because the 6 percent spending limit is such a high-profile issue, Republicans will have to be judicious in their response to Marostica’s actions.

“If they run a primary against Marostica, I think it will fail,” Straayer said. “And I think it will paint the party in a bad light, because the message will be that party ideology trumps pragmatics, and that the party will eat its own unless each and every one heels when the leash is pulled,” Straayer said.

“If they pull him from the JBC now, or in 2010, the impact may be similar. That is, it will communicate that any member of the party who faces up to the problems embedded in Colorado fiscal policy and seeks a practical way to keep critical state programs functioning will be deemed unacceptable to the keepers of the party ideology,” he said. “An already small tent is getting smaller.”

Historically speaking

Just as plump committee assignments can be a payoff for support of political leadership, members who break ranks can see their committee assignments yanked away according to Straayer.

In the 1980s, Arapahoe County Republican Sen. Martha Ezzard often found herself on the wrong side of the GOP, which caused her to lose desirable committee positions; she eventually switched to the Democrats. In 1988, Republican Sen. Jack Fenlon bucked his party and found himself on the losing end of a battle to keep his vice-chairmanship of the Senate Health, Environment, Welfare & Institutions Committee. By 1989, he lost his seat on the committee altogether.

Also in 1988, San Luis Valley farmer and longtime Republican legislator Lewis Entz lost his seat on the esteemed House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee after he bucked his party’s successful effort to overturn Gov. Roy Romer’s veto of the Lotto bill. Entz also irked Republicans by supporting some Democrats, including Ken Salazar in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Entz, who moved from the House to the Senate in 2002, eventually came back to chair the committee before losing re-election in Senate District 5 in 2006 to Democrat Gail Schwartz.

More recent members who have run into trouble include former Democratic Sen. Ron Tupa, who sided with Republicans on immigration reform in 2006. That move angered then-Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald enough that she stripped Tupa’s chairmanship of the Education Committee. Also in 2006, former Republican Rep. Bill Berens, independent of leadership, asked Legislative Council for a budget memo that was widely circulated among lawmakers and the media. Berens took much flak for the incident but was not stripped of a committee assignment.

In 2008, Colorado Springs’ most famous Republican, former Rep. Douglas Bruce, was stripped of his seat on the State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee after he refused to sponsor a ceremonial resolution honoring veterans. Bruce also was officially censured earlier in the session for kicking a Rocky Mountain News photographer on the House floor.

And one can’t forget the turmoil in the Republican ranks when Referendum C went before voters in 2005.

At the time, two prominent Republicans, former Gov. Bill Owens and Joint Budget Committee member Sen. Steve Johnson joined many Democrats in support of the budget initiative, which, in effect, gave the state a five-year timeout from TABOR’s revenue limit. In this case, however, repercussions weren’t so dire. Johnson was somewhat protected by having the governor on his side, and both men benefited by having the bulk of the state business and professional crowd with them.

Still, the two took a beating from Colorado’s fiscal conservatives for their support.

“Some people, frankly, have the spine to be themselves and buck their party and other people do not,” said House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, as he considered the state’s history of renegade votes. “I frankly don’t believe that there is such a thing as putting members in their place (when they go rogue), though. I think we are all down there with our own votes, and we use those as we see fit. I think it’s good when that is exercised and when people do what they think is best.”

Six truly nonpartisan votes?

Marostica might find some cover in his membership on the Joint Budget Committee, where no bill or amendment can pass without unanimous support. In other words, it’s not so easy to play partisan games when you’re tasked with drafting the state’s annual budget, affectionately known as the “Long Bill.”

“There is a whole lot of give and take on the JBC,” Weissmann said. “I think in that place, more than anywhere else, you almost have to check your party at the door and get what you think is the best proposal you can get, because you know you need all six votes to move forward.”

CSU professor Straayer agreed.

“Joint Budget Committee members do not have the luxury of their party colleagues in that they have a job to do, and they must produce a budget,” Straayer said.

“They can not simply sit on the sidelines and fire away in the name of small government. It is the responsibility of the position, which, in some meaningful measure, drives their choices. The JBC makes men and women out of boys and girls.”

The job for the JBC is getting harder with every new revenue projection state economists bring forth. The budget gap in the 2008-’09 fiscal year is $600 million short already, and the shortfall in 2009-’10 is expected to be nearly double that.

Marostica — and Democrats — contend that without complete removal of Arveschoug-Bird’s 6 percent spending limit and its ratchet effect on the General Fund, inflation and other constitutional requirements, such as Amendment 23, which guarantees increased K-12 education funding each year, the state never will recover from the current recession.

“I’ve looked at this for quite some time, and currently we can’t make this all work within a mathematical formula,” Marostica said last week. “TABOR, Amendment 23, Gallagher and Arveschoug-Bird all conflict, and will make it hard to budget properly. I am really concerned that inflation will make it impossible to keep up with the 6 percent spending limit in place.”

SB 228’s Senate sponsor, Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, agreed — calling the law “archaic” during testimony in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

“This was passed in 1991, and it really has not served us well,” Morse said. “And the Legislature can undo it in 2009 — which is our intention.

“There are those who will argue that you have to do this with a vote of the people because TABOR says any weakening of a spending limit needs a vote of the people. But this is not a spending limit. It’s an allocation strategy.”

But the argument that Arveschoug-Bird is an allocation rather than a spending limit is being passed off by Republicans as tortuous. Supporters of the 6 percent limit say the case against it completely ignores the fact that the state always has interrupted the law as a spending limit. Republicans also have been reiterating the fact that TABOR forces any weakening of spending limits to be approved by a vote of the people.

“This is one of the most important policy discussions we will have this legislative session because we are talking about how the Constitution applies to the way we do business,” said Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.

“I guess, basically, we are talking about throwing the Constitution out because we have accepted this as a spending limit.... It’s always been accepted as a limit and was constitutionalized when TABOR passed.”

Despite a 2008 legal opinion by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky that declared the provision an “allocation” limit and despite the willingness of Democrats to see the bill through the Legislature, Republicans already are gearing up for a court battle.

“I can see that it’s obvious that we are going to have attorneys settle the question of whether or not this has to go to a vote of the people,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who also called the bill reckless and a way for Colorado government to grow larger despite TABOR, which demands that such growth can occur only if the people vote for it.

“I believe that is what is bad about this bill. That is what is reckless about this bill,” Brophy continued. “Passage of this bill will put the state in the future in the same position where California is in now (of having to make massive budget cuts) because they haven’t (had) a restraint or limit on their spending.”

If SB 228 passes on second reading before the entire Senate — which it is expected to do on a party-line vote — Marostica said he is fully prepared to carry it through the House.

Bucking his party the entire way.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com