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A fee-ble state 

Legislators balanced the budget during the 2009 session, but are bracing for bigger problems next year

On April 15, as protesters wearing tea bags gathered outside the state Capitol to carp about taxes, legislators inside were trying to hash out a balanced budget.

Rep. Sal Pace, a Pueblo Democrat, remembers noting the irony of enduring protests even as the Legislature considered eviscerations of local health departments, programs for seniors and higher education funding.

"We were looking at closing community colleges," Pace says, still sounding horror-stricken by that.

A month and a half later, as Gov. Bill Ritter prepares to sign or reject the last bills from the 2009 legislative session, perhaps the best news is that the most dire moves were avoided. Before they adjourned on May 6, legislators eked out more than $1.5 billion in cuts mostly by tightening belts, shuffling funds and doing some light pruning.

That's not to say the cuts were insignificant. Many seniors who've lived in the same home for 10 or more years will be pinched by the temporary suspension of a program to cut their property taxes. And low-income families will be challenged by an increase in car registration fees that will average about $41 per vehicle.

But bigger cuts could be ahead. Senate Majority Leader John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, points out that many programs were saved through one-time transfers or by the infusion of stimulus money from the federal government.

"Next year, if everything stays the same," Morse says, "we're going to have to make some huge cuts."

Filling potholes

Lawmakers managed to pass some meaty legislation. Of local interest, there was the bill to help block proposed expansion of the Army's Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. On a larger scale, the new car registration fees, spelled out in a bill known as FASTER (Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery, if you really must know), will provide about $250 million annually for road and bridge improvements.

Starting July 1, registration fees for many cars and smaller sport-utility vehicles will go up by $32, and then will increase again each of the next two years. (The fee varies by weight; details can be found at coloradofaster.com.) By implementing a fee instead of a gas tax, lawmakers have placed the burden of fixing roads on all vehicle owners, instead of those who drive the most. Morse is convinced there was no other way: The 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment caps spending growth by state and local governments, and it requires voter approval for any new taxes.

"We haven't raised gas taxes since 1991," Morse says. "It just doesn't work."

Though repealing TABOR would require voter approval, legislators did make progress unraveling other parts of the state's fiscal straitjacket.

Senate Bill 228, which awaits Ritter's signature, effectively does away with the 1991 Arveschoug-Bird provision, which limited state general fund spending increases each year to only 6 percent. The limit may sound reasonable, but Morse and others argue that makes it hard to restore programs downsized or eliminated after government spending tumbles in a recession. Morse, a co-sponsor of the bill, says removing the limit will "make a huge difference as the economy comes back."

Firing potshots

Freshman Rep. Mark Waller, a Republican representing eastern Colorado Springs and El Paso County, objects to getting rid of Arveschoug-Bird, and also to the idea that much of what the Democrats did this year counts as budget-cutting.

"That was the big deception," Waller says. He offers an example: Repealing the homestead exemption for seniors who've owned their homes more than 10 years should count not as a budget cut, he says, but as a simple $100 million revenue increase.

Instead of moving around funds and collecting new fees, Waller says, legislators should have looked for savings from every department, possibly requiring employee furloughs.

Waller also thinks the bill to prevent the State Land Board from selling or leasing land to be used to expand the Piñon Canyon site will harm the region, possibly by making Fort Carson less attractive for future Army growth. Ritter hasn't yet signed the bill, but has said he will.

Waller and other Republicans fault Rep. Dennis Apuan, a freshman Democrat whose district includes Fort Carson, for not taking a vocal role in opposition.

"In my mind," Waller says, "your job is to go out there and fight for your constituents."

Apuan counters that he voted against the bill and represented his constituents on this and other issues. He says he's "not the loudest voice at the Capitol," but he hopes to be reasonable and get things done. To that end, he points to his efforts co-sponsoring bills that will increase the scholarship money available for members of the Colorado National Guard and help soldiers train to become teachers.

Pace and other Democrats see the criticism as being more about politics than Apuan's performance — Republicans want to retake his seat in 2010.

As for the Piñon Canyon bill, which he co-sponsored, Pace sees the issue as pretty cut-and-dried: "They have a quarter-million acres," he says, which is "more than enough training space."

lane@csindy.com

  • "We were looking at closing community colleges," one representative says.

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