Republicans try to paint majority Dems as big spenders
DENVER – Colorado Republicans were split over whether to ask voters for more money in the fall election, but now they are closely watching Democrats’ spending ideas as the GOP tries to unite behind a common goal: win back control of the Legislature.Just a few days into the new Legislative session, the Republican strategy that seems to be emerging is to paint the Democrats as spendthrifts beholden to the special interests that got them elected.”We’re going to show that we’re the party of fiscal responsibility. Just because we have all this money doesn’t mean we need to go out and have a spending spree,” said House Minority Leader Joe Stengel.He said Democrats will try to spend more than just the $4 billion in tax refunds the state will keep under Referendum C by raising fees and getting rid of the 6 percent spending limit.On Monday, Gov. Bill Owens, who supported Referendum C, told GOP House members that Democrats might try to spend more on their projects by undoing a law that requires a certain percentage of any surplus go to roads.House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said none of those claims is true.Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer thinks the Republican approach seems to be similar to last year, after the GOP lost control of both chambers for the first time in over 40 years. At the time, there wasn’t much money to spend and members of both parties worked on the proposed solution to the budget mess – Referendum C.As they try to get back in the majority in this fall’s election, Straayer said the Republicans’ success will depend on whether the Democrats stick to their promise to be fiscally responsible now that more money is available or whether they come up with a blizzard of new programs.”It also depends on how aggressive Republicans are. There’s a point where you can over attack and portray yourselves as being incapable of doing anything else, including coming up with an agenda of your own,” said Straayer, likening the position of Republicans here to minority Democrats in Congress.Republicans need to win three seats to regain control of the House. Stengel won’t say which seats the GOP is targeting.In the Senate, where Democrats have a one-vote edge, Rep. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said the key seats are those held by Democrats Jim Isgar of Hesperus, Moe Keller of Wheat Ridge and Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald of Coal Creek.Harvey, who’s running for the seat held by term-limited Sen. John Evans, said those districts have more registered Republicans than Democrats. Isgar’s seat representing southwestern Colorado had been seen as the GOP’s best opportunity but Republican Rep. Mark Larson of Cortez, a moderate, recently decided against running.Besides playing defense, Republicans are pushing their own priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration and tackling the state’s troubled pension system, which has an unfunded liability of more than $11 billion.Stengel doesn’t have a specific remedy for the Public Employees Retirement Association, but thinks lawmakers need to consider all their options, such as requiring employees to pay more into the system; switching to defined contribution plans such as 401(k) accounts like the private sector is doing; and reducing benefits.”Republicans are willing to say let’s make the tough decisions now. Let’s save the system, let’s make sure that all the retirees get the benefits they’ve been promised and that they’ve paid into instead of waiting more time,” he said.Stengel, who opposed Referendum C, said he thinks voters who backed the measure want the money to be used to restore budget cuts made during the recession, not to create programs.The campaign in favor of Referendum C stressed that $1 billion in cuts had been made during the recession, but the ballot language didn’t say anything about whether the money would be spent to fill existing gaps or fund new programs. It does say the money will be spent on health care, education and roads.Romanoff said the money should be spent in ways that provide the most benefit. For example, he said the state’s health care system is broken and that may call for new programs.”The important thing is not whether it’s new or old, it’s whether it’s working,” he said. “That’s how people should judge us. That’s how we will be held accountable.”Stengel said one example of new spending Democrats are supporting is statewide full-day kindergarten. While school districts aren’t required to offer kindergarten, all 178 districts do. But some can afford only half-day programs. In some districts, parents pay the difference to support full-day sessions.Stengel and former Senate President John Andrews, an Englewood Republican, also point to a Democratic proposal to subsidize the health insurance costs of small businesses.Andrews said Democrats are “in the position of being careful what you wish for twice over.” They have to make the hard decisions that come with being in charge and he says they have to listen to interest groups – organized labor, the teachers’ union and environmentalists – he says helped get them there.
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