This week, Colorado's legislators convened what promises to be an interesting 120-day session.
Republicans hold a slim majority in the state Senate and a stranglehold on the national government, Democrats are in control of the state House and the governor's mansion, seemingly every federal program is threatened, and the state faces budget troubles. Gov. John Hickenlooper's budget expected a shortfall of $500 million, and recommended several ways to bridge the gap, though any fix is likely to be controversial.
Piece of cake.
Now throw in the other challenges. Ballooning Medicaid costs. Energy and environmental regulation head-butting. The ongoing standoff over a construction defects law that developers say would make it financially feasible for them to build more affordable housing. A "negative factor" that has shortchanged K-12 schools since 2009 by more than $855 million. The continuing war about whether to remove the hospital provider fee from the state budget. Budding interest from at least a couple Republicans — you heard that right — for a tweak to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. A crisis of underfunding for road and bridge projects (a 2015 project wish list came to $3 billion), including the widening of the bottleneck section of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock — a $300-$400 million project for which the Colorado Department of Transportation recently announced it was accelerating the environmental and planning process. CDOT now says the project could be fully constructed within five years — provided it's funded, which it currently isn't.
But there does appear to be early enthusiasm from both sides to solve at least some of these problems. And while the Legislature is still divided politically, many are hopeful that its new leaders may be more keen on bipartisan solutions than their predecessors. Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, has replaced Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, as speaker of the house. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, has replaced Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, as senate president.
Of particular importance: Cadman was known for his uncompromising style, while Grantham — though still viewed as very conservative — is considered more collaborative.
We talked to five of our local legislators (three Democrats and two Republicans) about what they think should be done about the budget, how they'd fund an I-25 expansion between Monument and Castle Rock, and what bills they are proposing this session.
The budget: "We'll balance the budget because that's what we're required to do by the Colorado Constitution," Exum says.
That said, everyone expects some hurdles. For the past two years, Democrats and Republicans have been fighting about excluding the hospital provider fee from the state budget, a move aimed at preventing the state from exceeding TABOR budget caps, which trigger refunds to taxpayers. The provider fee is paid by hospitals to the state and matched dollar for dollar with federal money. It's then used to help hospitals cover the costs of treating low-income Coloradans.
Democrats want the approximately $700 million the fees bring in annually to be accounted for outside of the state budget. But they've been fighting that battle for two years and despite many other GOP leaders' support, it doesn't appear that Republicans in the Senate will ever let the change through. Exum says he's still open to talking about it.
Another option: ColoradoPolitics.com reports Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, are proposing asking voters to change TABOR to allow the state budget to grow at a rate tied to population change and income growth instead of the current formula, which bases allowable growth on population growth and inflation. The idea of changing TABOR used to be anathema to state Republicans, but the proposal seems to have generated interest from both sides of the aisle — including Exum.
A third option, which would likely be much more complicated, is cutting the state's recently-expanded Medicaid program. Exum says he's not in favor of that.
I-25: Exum says the widening is a top need — though he's also rooting for improvements to roads in his southeast Colorado Springs district. What Exum isn't sure about, however, is how to pay for widening I-25. Proposals include paying for it with a tax increase (either a sales tax or an increase to the gas tax), or taking out billions in bonds (debt) for road projects. The latter option would also probably require a tax increase. Exum isn't keen on either plan, especially bonds.
"It's an easy way to get money," he says, "but it's a very expensive way to pay it back."
He says he'd like to see creative options like tolls or public-private partnerships explored.
Sponsored bills: Exum is focusing on renewing the signature bills he passed the last time he was in this seat, from 2012 to 2014. Those include things like grants for firefighter safety equipment, child care tax credits and help for people seeking assistance due to a disability. He also wants to sponsor a bill focused on ensuring safe water "in light of what's happened south of us."
The budget: Gardner isn't keen on exempting the hospital provider fee from the budget, but he says he'd actually consider it — if Democrats agreed to "comprehensive Medicaid reform." He says the scenario is unlikely but, "I'm in the Ronald Reagan school of 'never say never.'"
While he thinks the Legislature has to be responsible with the budget it has, he might consider supporting the proposed TABOR alteration, depending on what his constituents say about it.
I-25: Gardner thinks the best option is for the Legislature to act quickly to put a bonding proposal before voters to fund the project. The debt would then be paid back with general fund dollars freed up through responsible belt-tightening, he says. Gardner says he is open to hearing about some other ideas — such as adding toll lanes (though not turning the entire road into a toll road) — but he doesn't want to raise taxes.
Sponsored bills: Gardner offers an interesting mix. First, he has a bill that would facilitate information-sharing in child-abuse cases for military families. The idea would be to ensure that, as families move around the country and world, children continue to be protected and families are still offered the help they need. Second, he's sponsoring a bill to ensure victims are notified when perpetrators are released from prison — it's an update to an older law. Third, Gardner will propose a law allowing residential storage condos to be taxed at a residential, rather than a commercial, rate.
The budget: Lee thinks a solution fueled by the provider fee or a TABOR change is unlikely. He's hoping Duran may think of a package of changes to bridge the gap.
I-25: Lee says he thinks he will support the widening, but he's not sure how it will be paid for. "The general fund's already committed," he says.
He favors asking voters to raise the gas tax to pay for roads — it hasn't been hiked since the early 1990s — but says he's seen polling that shows that proposal is unlikely to pass.
Sponsored bills: Some of Lee's bills include:
• expanding the state's use of restorative justice options in sentencing, particularly in plea bargains;
• changes to the way juvenile criminal records are expunged, making it easier or automatic to have those records hidden after a sentence is served;
• changing the law to punish those who use sexts sent by underage people as a form of blackmail, harassment or intimidation, but removing punishments for kids who send naked pictures of themselves (currently a child can be charged with felony child pornography for sending naked selfies);
• prohibiting sending 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds to the Division of Youth Corrections.
The budget: Liston says challenges are huge this year. "I'm glad I'm not on the budget committee," he says with a laugh, "at least right now." Liston says he's interested in hearing about the TABOR idea, but will weigh his constituents input before he decides to support any budget fix.
I-25: Liston says the current situation is ridiculous and expensive. Considering the budget jam, he says bonds are likely the answer, but the state will need a revenue stream to pay them back — and that could mean possibly asking for tax increases, most likely to the gas tax.
Sponsored bills: Since he's in the minority in the House, Liston says, "There will be no gun legislation; there won't be any abortion legislation." He's got a bill that would allow taxing entities that fund road projects, known as RTAs (ours is the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority), to ask voters for a property tax instead of a sales tax. Another bill would let physical therapists practice in Colorado with out-of-state licenses.
The budget: Merrifield says the budget shows a true financial crisis, but he's "cautiously optimistic with the new leadership in the Senate." He hopes the hospital provider fee conversation won't be dropped because it would go a long way to filling the gap. He's open to amending TABOR.
I-25: Merrifield says it doesn't make sense to chop the budget of already underfunded state priorities like K-12 education. He supports asking voters to raise the gas tax to fund the project.
Sponsored bills: Merrifield says he'll be focusing his energy on "fighting to maintain our Colorado values against what I think will be an onslaught of ultra-conservative, right-wing initiatives."
He's considering bills to limit the proportion of a teacher's evaluation that's based on test scores, increase preschool options, make art and music class offerings an indicator of school performance, and set a limit on the amount of wages that can be garnished from a individual depending on income. He also plans to carry a referred measure to lower the age for holding legislative office from 26 to 21.