Budget will be key battle this session; this time, lawmakers have money
DENVER – When the Legislature convenes in a few days, the budget will be the biggest issue dominating the 120-day session. Of course, the budget is almost always the biggest issue, but this year is different – for the first time in years, lawmakers will have a lot more money to spend.Republicans and Democrats both say they want to keep the trust of voters who agreed in November to give up $3.7 billion in tax surplus refunds over the next five years to make up for budget woes dating back to 2001. The recession-caused pinch forced lawmakers to cut funding for health care, higher education, transportation and other programs not required by the federal government.The two parties disagree, however, over how that will be done. Referendum C was approved, but it provides only general guidelines on how the money should be spent. And those details are expected to be hotly contested in an election year.”That’s the fight. It’s not the budget anymore, it’s fixed. The question is how we will spend the money,” said House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, who believes lawmakers will be hard-pressed to hold off special interest groups like organized labor and teachers’ unions looking for job protection, salary increases and more money for health care.The referendum approved by voters Nov. 1 allows the state to keep the tax surpluses over the to fix problems blamed on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the constitutional amendment considered the nation’s strictest cap on government spending. Part of TABOR kept state spending at the lowest level of the recent recession, forcing painful cuts for the past several years.Lawmakers want to use the surplus money to restore hundreds of millions of dollars cut from transportation, Medicaid and higher education over the past three years, but lawmakers have a lot of leeway over how the money will be spent and the governor has a line-item veto.Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who leaves office after this year because of term limits, wants the first installment of the Referendum C money – $440 million – to be committed to restoring the state’s 4 percent cash reserve and refilling funds the state raided to get through tight financial times. He said he also hopes lawmakers will provide additional money for transportation and he will leave it to the state Transportation Commission, which already has a list of potential projects, to decide how the money will be spent.”One of the things we pointed out in the campaign on Referendum C was that this really didn’t mean new money for new programs,” said Owens, who surprised conservative members of his own party by teaming up with Democrats on the ballot measure.Owens said voters want the money used to restore programs cut when the economy declined in 2001, slashing tax revenues by $2 billion.Democrats want to spread the money equally among education, transportation and health care, saying that’s what voters were promised. They want a five-year plan to find better ways to run government, even if that means new programs like bulk purchasing for prescription drugs – any Coloradan could buy drugs at a discounted rate given to states that combine their buying power – and waivers that would allow Colorado to combine welfare programs to save money.”We can’t afford to continue what we’re doing,” said Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden.John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University, said both sides risk angering voters if they get into a fight over money.”The danger is that this can look to the public like a violation of the public trust,” he said.Both sides acknowledge it will be a political year, with elections in November that will determine whether Democrats retain control of the House and Senate after they captured control of both for the first time since the early 1960s. This year, Democrats also have a chance to win the governor’s office.Other major issues this year are expected to include illegal immigration, which Republicans have threatened to make a campaign issue, rising health care costs, increased funding for education and reforming the pension system for public employees.
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