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Dems go long in bipartisan budget game

Gov. Bill Owens, House GOP still not won over

By Leigh E. Rich

It was a pep rally Tuesday at a joint Democratic caucus luncheon, as Colorado’s donkeys geared up for Wednesday’s big budget game.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, and Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Jefferson County, rallied their team during the lunchtime affair at The Burnsley Hotel for the much-anticipated bipartisan budget bill that Romanoff would release on Wednesday.

“You say you want a resolution?” Romanoff asked the Democratic caucus, smiling at his play on The Beatles’ song, “Revolution.”

And he promised that his bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, and Peter Groff, D-Denver, would be a real, long-term solution.

The latest fiscal Hail Mary proposed by lawmakers would involve reducing the state income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent—a tax decrease first advocated by Romanoff and now also Gov. Bill Owens—in exchange for taxpayers allowing the state to retain and spend more of the revenues it collects. Currently, the state’s spending limit is dictated by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), a 1992 voter-approved amendment that rations yearly state expenditure increases to the rate of inflation plus population growth. Any excess revenue collected must be returned to taxpayers.

The Romanoff-Johnson bill would raise the TABOR cap to equal the state’s spending limit for the 1999-2000 fiscal year—a number itself generated by the TABOR equation but at a time before state revenues began to decline in the new millennium.

According to Romanoff, state spending in 2000, as a percentage of personal income in Colorado, was 6.08 percent. The national average, determined by the 2000 Census, was 8.85 percent.

Under his plan—which he called a proposal to “cut and invest”—Colorado would still keep its ranking as having “the strictest spending limits in America” and “the lowest state tax burden in America,” Romanoff said Wednesday. “This is in many ways a conservative approach.”

But it’s not going to be easy, he warned, to clean up Colorado’s current budget mess, caused by a combination of constitutional spending limits and mandates and the economic recession that began at the end of 2001.

State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been kicking around ideas since last summer to avoid budget cuts the Legislature will have to make in the face of anticipated shortfalls—due in part to TABOR’s revenue ceiling as well as 2000’s Amendment 23 that simultaneously mandates increased spending in K-12 education. A potential accounting error discovered this week in the state’s revenue books may help resolve the 2004-05 budget deficit, but legislators say they can’t merely balance this year’s budget and call it a day.

“Action is needed now,” Fitz-Gerald said Tuesday, for a “longer-term solution” for budget deficits expected next year and beyond.

TABOR’s so-called “ratchet effect”—forcing each year’s budget to be based on the year before, despite economic downslides—and state infrastructural needs as the population grows are to blame for the projected shortfalls.

Fitz-Gerald told her colleagues, “We’re making our futures look a little brighter.” She even made mention of last week’s episode of “The West Wing,” in which the fictional presidential staff were reminded that they went into politics to do more than just put out daily fires.

“What did you come here to do?” Fitz-Gerald reiterated the television program’s message.

“Every single day we are working toward the end of this session,” she said, advising legislators to avoid becoming distracted or scattered in the finite number of days left. “Do not take your eye off this ball.”

Even for voters, budget not a spectator sport

Fitz-Gerald even wrangled a bit with Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, when he told his associates to also think big about the issues that brought each of them to the Capitol in the first place.

“Nothing moves without this solution,” Fitz-Gerald countered.

Gordon agreed that the state budget is “the key issue” on the General Assembly’s table. And for the first time in 44 years, Democrats are sitting at the head of both chambers.

“We think we’re going to deserve to have it for longer,” said Gordon, who began a movement earlier this week to change the language of the budget game.

In his second e-mail newsletter of the session, the Democratic senator—who swears he “is not joking”—has begun referring to TABOR as “the ’92 Amendment” or “The Revenue Neutral Restrictive Constitutional Knot,” otherwise shortened to “TRNRCK.”

For those who think TABOR is a “disaster” akin to a “train wreck,” Gordon says the change of language is essential when educating Colorado’s taxpayers about the budget crisis and a budget fix.

And lawmakers need voter approval. Even though the Romanoff-Johnson bill wouldn’t amend the state’s constitution and, thus, would only require a 51 percent instead of a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, a change in spending limits would have to be sanctioned by voters on a 2005 ballot.

It seems Gordon is already prepping for what may be a voter education battle.

In Colorado, “because of the ‘Train Wreck’ ratchet,” Gordon writes, “the money that we refund is money that we actually need to just keep up with the same level of services that government (let’s change that to ‘our community’) provides.”

Senate and House Dems will hit the road beginning this weekend, traveling throughout the state on a two-week “Dome on the Range” tour to educate Colorado’s citizens about the Romanoff bill.

Republicans go for a blitz

Disagreements over language continued into Wednesday, as House and Senate Minority Leaders Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, and Mark Hillman, R-Burlington, held their own press conference after Romanoff, Johnson and Groff unveiled their bill, entitled “Colorado Tax Cut and Economic Recovery Act.”

Rep. Stengel renamed Romanoff’s plan: “I believe it’s what you would call ‘cut and tax,’” he said, with Sen. Hillman and Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Dale Hall, R-Greeley, flanking him.

He also called it a form of “bait and switch,” with “a miniscule tax cut” offered in exchange for “one of the largest expansions in government spending.”

Romanoff had warned his fellow Dems on Tuesday that protest from “the usual suspects”—mentioning Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute and TABOR author Douglas Bruce by name and borrowing phrases that have been used recently by Stengel and Hillman—might come in the form of: “This is the biggest tax increase or a blank check.”

“It’s easy to demagogue,” the House speaker retorted, ostensibly in defense of Stengel’s oft-heard remark that Romanoff’s plans amount to “sound bites.”

The three GOP legislators, effectively representing a House Republican presence clearly absent during Romanoff’s press conference, took offense mainly with the new spending cap based on 2000’s 6.08 percent figure—something even Johnson said he wasn’t that happy about.

Not mincing words, Stengel deemed that cap a mirage. “It’s out there, but you’ll never reach it,” effectively reducing a TABOR refund to a “someday (that) will never come.”

Hillman and Hall were more diplomatic, with the former calling Romanoff’s ideas since last summer “innovative,” though worrying the current plan “is a spending limit which may or may not be a spending limit.”

Hall said it was “a limit by name” that “we’ll probably never hit. … I think we’re taking a step backward.”

Instead, Hall suggested adding a five-year sunset clause to the bill and both he and Hillman proposed focusing on what Hall says is a painful TABOR ratchet.

“A TABOR limit without a ratchet is still an effective limit in the long-term,” Hillman added, who says the current TABOR limit forces the state to “find efficiencies.”

All three believe that the Romanoff proposal won’t pass muster with the voters or with Owens, even though the bill will never go to the governor’s desk.

GOP leaders on the defensive

And the state’s leading GOP lawmakers—Stengel, Hillman and a traveling Owens via a press statement—complained the Dems’ favorite new word is “no.”

According to Hillman, who says he’s skeptical about the government’s ability to live within its means, there isn’t much give-and-take at the negotiating table.

The governor’s press release referred to his own five-point budget plan issued in December as well as a compromise he says he made earlier in the week to add a five-year sunset clause to Romanoff’s bill.

“This, too, was rejected summarily,” the statement notes, emphasizing that the governor is “disappointed, but not deterred.”

“We just can’t seem to get to a compromise because we keep hearing the word ‘no,’” Stengel stated, saying he had yet to see a copy of the bill and that he “was told no” each time he has laid ideas on the negotiating table.

During Romanoff’s press conference, reporters asked Stengel, then sitting on the sidelines, what would bring him and the House Republicans into the game. Stengel mentioned figures more to his liking: reducing the state’s income tax to 4.45 percent or the spending limit to 5 percent of statewide personal income.

“If I thought a different cap would bring the support of the caucus not represented here, I’d shake hands on that now,” Romanoff responded.

“What do you think?” he asked Stengel.

Explaining that he would have to run the numbers, the House minority leader waited for his own press conference to reply, at which time he called his suggestions “negotiations,” not an offer.

Instead, he deflected Romanoff’s question: “It’s your press conference, Mr. Speaker.”

Romanoff admitted to “being a little flip,” reminding everyone that the budget is “not a game. … We’re trying to drive good public policy here.”

But Stengel call the Romanoff plan “far from bipartisan” and not accurately reflecting a distinction between Colorado’s needs and its wants.

Senate President Pro Tem Groff warned, however, that Colorado “would be the first state in the nation to do away with public higher education” if a long-term budget fix isn’t found. He said the state’s public higher ed institutions would be left with three choices: close, privatize or raise tuition prices to the level of DU, “without the nice building(s).”

And it’s a domino effect, he added, saying problems in funding state transportation and health care, among others, would follow.

“Those needs are growing as our population grows,” Romanoff emphasized, because lawmakers “can’t build a wall around Colorado” to stop people from moving here and the state has “some kind of generational obligation” as well.

Both sides can win, Dems say

Despite a lack of House Republican support at Wednesday’s press conference, Romanoff remained optimistic, deeming the budget glass as “three-fourths full, rather than one-fourth empty.”

Groff said these early strides in the process also might save the General Assembly from “the heartburn and the headache” of last year, where lawmakers waited until the end of the session to deal with the budget.

But this week Colorado’s legislative caucuses split 3 to 1 on that topic as well.

While Fitz-Gerald and Johnson deemed it prudent to be tackling the budget mess at the sound of the starting gun, Hall said Wednesday, “We’re starting too soon.”

For his part, Romanoff believes it is better to have something in the hopper over which debates and negotiations can begin.

And Democratic leaders all say they welcome that debate from both sides of the scrimmage line.

It’s critical to have Republican support, Groff noted, despite the fact that the governor can’t veto the bill and, with a majority in both houses, the Dems could “run this bill through the building.”

But they won’t do that, he pledged, particularly because “two-thirds of (the people in) this state don’t have ‘Ds’ on their registration cards.”

“This is not the case of our way or the highway,” Romanoff said, adding with a smile, “though we care about highways, too.”

It’s a beginning, not the end, he assured.

“I believe every proposal ought to be on the table,” with one exception—raising taxes.

Rich, L. E. (2005, January 28). Gov. Bill Owens, House GOP still not won over: Dems go long in bipartisan budget game. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 7, 11.

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