House Republican leaders on Wednesday said the GOP caucus wants to “fundamentally change” the way the Legislature puts together the state’s annual budget, potentially by vastly diminishing the role of the powerful Joint Budget Committee and giving all the other committees more say.
Cautioning that the caucus he leads isn’t planning to introduce a proposal this session, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, told reporters that Republicans have been considering different ways to assemble a state budget and plan to “come up with a good solution” in the near future.
“I think we need to fundamentally change how we do the budget,” Neville said during a mid-session briefing in House chambers. “We’ve been discussing how we can actually change it. I think we have a problem when the JBC gets together and does a budget without having much input from the committees of reference and much otherwise input. It’s business as usual, the way we’ve been doing it.”
Neville made frequent comparisons between how the state sets its budget and families around kitchen tables, setting priorities and living within their means.
“When we have more money than we’ve ever had, year after, year, we shouldn’t hear this nonsense that we’re in a budget crisis,” he said.
Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, said he wanted to stress that the GOP caucus isn’t intending to criticize the JBC and the work its members do.
“It isn’t an anti-JBC message,” he said. “The message is, we want more fingerprints and more eyeballs on the budget, earlier and more regularly through the session.”
Wist said it was time to discuss whether or not the Legislature’s budgeting process “still works for Colorado.”
“Let’s face facts,” Wist said. “We’re one of only a handful of states that does budgets this way. We’re elected to have conversations about whether or not that system is working, whether or not it reflects the will of the people. At the end of the day, there are 100 votes in this building about how we spend money, and I think it’s an appropriate discussion for us to have regarding whether or not six people should have the control and power that they do over our budgeting process — without any comment about the hard work that gets put in across the street in terms of that budgeting process.”
While he acknowledged that every lawmaker has the opportunity to sit in with the JBC and lend insight, Wist maintained that the process still might not be as inclusive as it should be.
“We get the budget in April,” he said. “We get it at the tail end of the session. So the question is, what meaningful changes can be made to the budget at that point?”
“The question we have is, is a budget committee of six people enough?” Wist continued. “Is that reflecting the will of the people of Colorado, and are we doing enough to make sure we have a robust discussion to find out whether or not we’re being efficient and we’re allocating tax dollars appropriately?”
State Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Thornton, the Senate Democrats’ member on the JBC, said Wednesday afternoon that House Republicans might be on a futile quest.
“It’s not that surprising, because it’s been tried in years before, and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” Moreno said as he prepared to cross the street to attend an afternoon JBC meeting. “The reality of the situation is, most legislators don’t have the time to dive as deep as we do into the inner workings of the state budget. The JBC has been structured this way for a long time, and it’s here to stay, as far as I’m concerned.”
(The majority caucus in each chamber appoints two members to the JBC, and each minority caucus appoints one member. This year, because the parties split control of the General Assembly, that makes for three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel. In addition to Moreno, the other members are state Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who chairs the JBC; state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, the vice chair; state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud; state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale; and state Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley.)
Moreno acknowledged that there could be ways to involve more lawmakers — their fingerprints and eyeballs, as Wist suggested — throughout the process, but called it “a little silly” to consider drastically reducing the role of the JBC.
“I think there’s room to have conversations like that,” he said, balancing an enormous binder that appeared to be filled with budget documents. “Quite frankly, the people who serve on committees of references are supposed to be issue experts on those things, so I think there are definitely ways to look at ways to incorporate them. But to scrap the JBC would be a little silly.”
Wist allowed in the earlier briefing that House Republicans would probably want to keep a budget committee, although most of the JBC’s power would likely be transferred to other committees.
“Get budgetary issues into committees of reference,” Wist said, responding to a reporter’s question on how the budget procedures might work. “I think you still need some kind of a budget committee to formulate a budget to make proposals, but what we’re envisioning is a more robust process for committees of reference to participate in the budgeting process.” He added, “I think there’s pent-up frustration by our members that they’d like to be more involved in those discussions.”
Neville expressed a similar sentiment when asked how lawmakers could fit budgeting in the 120-day session. Noting that the House had spent an hour and a half on resolutions that morning, Neville added, “We have 120 days. How we spend that time is up to us. And what we’re saying is we’re frustrated that we don’t spend our time in the people’s house doing the people’s business.”
The Legislature approves an annual budget — typically late in the 120-day session, often near the end of April — for the following fiscal year, from July 1-June 30. The JBC, including members from both parties and both chambers, spends months putting together the budget, known as the “Long Bill” when it’s introduced, based on a proposed budget submitted in fall the year before by the governor.
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered the 2017-18 proposed state budget to the JBC in November totaling $28.5 billion, with $10.9 billion of that in the General Fund. When it was submitted, the request was 3.3 percent above the anticipated 2016-2017 budget, with General Fund spending 3.7 percent higher.