Long Bill slithers through House

...Stalls in Senate

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

It’s never easy to get the Long Bill through the Legislature, and this year it seems harder than ever.

As in previous years, each lawmaker and caucus has different priorities. This year, however, the need for massive cuts in the face of a massive deficit has made the budgeting process particularly painful. But pain can lead to bipartisan compromise — at least in the House.

House members buckled down last week, painstakingly cutting back programs and finding sources of new revenue to zero out a $300 million deficit. Democrats and Republicans in the House voted unanimously to approve the conference committee report on the Long Bill that came back to them on Wednesday. The Long Bill then passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support: 49 votes in favor, only 13 opposed.

But half an hour later, when the conference committee report on the Long Bill landed on the Senate’s doorstep, members of the upper chamber were unable to produce even a hint of bipartisanship.

An hour of debate immediately ensued, with Republicans decrying the proposed budget as too expensive and in need of deeper trims. Democrats said the budget was balanced by making substantial cuts to every sector of state government and accused the Republicans of stalling its passage by “bickering” with partisan intent.

“This conference committee report passed unanimously in the House with Democrats and Republicans in support. It was a short debate there,” said Senate Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, from the well. “And here we are again, bickering like cats and dogs over whether this word is correct or if they did that in the right way. Again, our conversation is a partisan conversation.”

Republicans, however, remained steadfast in their belief that the Legislature had not done enough to cut state spending during difficult economic times.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, of Grand Junction, led the Republican charge, asking members to support a motion to send the Long Bill back for a second conference committee attempt with instructions to cut more from the budget.

“When this bill passed the Senate, many of us had grave objections and many concerns,” Penry said, reflecting on the Pinnacol Assurance battle that was lost this week. “And, I think the House deserves the credit for beginning to make some difficult choices. But I am disappointed that — instead of trying to go in and make (more of) those choices — we have relied on a new set of gimmicks and new revenue to continue kicking the can down the road to next year.”

Penry said the Joint Budget Committee’s use of cash fund transfers, elimination of tax exemptions on tobacco and vending machines and reliance on one-time federal stimulus money offer only a temporary solution. Next year, he said, those difficult choices will be back.

Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, of Berthoud, agreed.

“I believe we have to go back and say (this) isn’t good enough,” Lundberg said, adding that an $800,000 provision in the budget for Capitol security is one example of wasteful spending that can be eliminated.

“We just can’t bring ourselves to actually put serious cuts on the table,” he said.

Democrats, who spent most of the night listening to Republican speeches while delivering very few of their own, responded by saying that government is too important to be put on financial life support, especially during an economic recession.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, decried Republican rhetoric during an impassioned 10-minute-long speech from the well.

“Government provides things like justice, equity, fairness and responsive representativeness, but only, apparently, according to (Republicans), during the good times,” Morse said. “Sorry, boys and girls. The reality is government has to do what it does 24/7, regardless of economic conditions.

“In fact, in bad economic conditions, that is when government has to step up to the plate.”

After the debate ceased, the conference committee report passed 19-14 with two senators excused. JBC member Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, was the only Republican to vote in favor, while Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, voted to send the Long Bill back to committee.

The Long Bill passed on a nearly party line vote, 21-12-2, again with White as the lone Republican to vote in favor.

The budget now heads to Gov. Bill Ritter to be signed into law.

Senate Bill 228

In other budget news, Ritter and state lawmakers announced a compromise on Senate Bill 228 that could revamp the way the state funds transportation projects.

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. SB 228 would, instead, link spending growth to 5 percent of the state’s personal income growth. It also sets up a rainy day fund for the state and guarantees funding for transportation.

Today, transportation is funded largely by Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1310, which dictate that any revenue exceeding the 6 percent growth limit goes, in part, to fund transportation.

“We’re doing everything we can to position Colorado for a strong recovery, but those fiscal restraints (of Arveschoug-Bird) are holding us back,” Ritter said in a prepared statement. “Under this plan, we won’t spend any additional revenue. But we will spend the revenue we do have more effectively and wisely.”

The only Republican to support the plan, however, was its sponsor, JBC member Rep. Don Marostica, of Loveland.

The 6 percent limit, long considered by some to be the underpinning of Colorado’s fiscal conservatism, 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.

When SB 228 came before the House Energy and Transportation Committee on Thursday, Republicans used the opportunity to express concern that the new rules would reduce transportation funding in future budgets.

“This does not provide a long-term, stable source of revenue for transportation funding,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “It seems to me like this is proposing a significant cut for transportation funding.”

Marostica countered that argument by saying that during lean years, the state doesn’t provide any transportation funding, and SB 228 would eliminate that problem.

But McNulty didn’t buy that line, saying a more apt comparison would be to add up the money transportation has been given between now and 1991, then add up how much it would be projected to get in the future under the new plan. He doubted the future plan would offer as much.

“Even before Ref. C, significant transfers were being made (to transportation) under SB 1,” he said. “(And) as the economy recovers, we will see those significant transfers continue. Under this plan, you are eliminating two significant funding programs that have helped our roads and bridges.”

SB 228, with Ritter’s amended compromise, was still being debated as of press time Thursday.

Jason@coloradostateman.com