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State senators return from a listening tour with lots of ideas and little wiggle room for 2010 session

Health care, higher education and water are on the minds of Coloradans, and in very specific ways, two state senators found during a statewide listening tour that started in August in northwest Colorado and continued sporadically before ending last week in Colorado Springs.

A group of home-health nurses in Grand County told state Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, the Medicaid reimbursement system is a wreck. It's complicated, and each agency that reimburses has its own kind of forms; the documents need to be standardized, which would save everyone time and money and enable the state to get the most for its Medicaid dollars.

"I will introduce legislation to do that," Shaffer says.

Morse got an earful from college presidents about rules preventing them from getting deals by working with other colleges and universities, such as through bulk purchasing. So, Morse will propose a bill to allow greater "flexibility," Shaffer says.

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, who joined part of the tour, heard high school officials in the Platte River Basin complain about spending $400,000 to water athletic fields and school lawns after the state engineer shut down the school's well to preserve others' priority rights. Shaffer said existing law allows domestic wells to continue pumping under such an order. Hodge wants to propose a second exemption, for schools.

During a visit to the Indy last week, Morse, Shaffer and Hodge focused on the bigger picture, which is less than pretty: Morse notes the Legislature must pass laws that will enable Gov. Bill Ritter to cut $560 million from the budget.

Shaffer and Morse aren't hopeful they can win approval of a statewide ballot measure to amend the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the constitutional tax-limitation measure that many blame for the state's budget catastrophe. For the Legislature to refer a measure to voters requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, something Shaffer says is unlikely: "We can't get the conservative elements to admit there's a problem."

But Shaffer says lawmakers must tackle issues with PERA, the Public Employees' Retirement Association that has 190,000 active members and 81,000 receiving benefits that average $2,772 a month. PERA substitutes for Social Security and is in financial trouble. Shaffer sidesteps questions about what he has in mind even as he acknowledges, "What it's going to cost is what everyone wants to know."

Part of the Senate president's "route out of economic gloom" involves measures he says will help shape a workforce for the 21st century. The first would enable community college students to declare majors while at two-year colleges and more easily transfer credits to four-year schools. The other would promote more effective K-12 education by finding better ways to evaluate teachers and administrators.

On another issue, Morse says he doesn't support reducing motor vehicle registration fees, which were increased sharply during the last legislative session to raise $250 million for roads and the state's 126 structurally deficient bridges. But he says he's willing to "tweak some fines."

Other issues lawmakers will take up include implementing legislation for the medical marijuana measure approved by voters in 2000 and further consideration of eliminating the state's business personal property tax.

In 2007, the Legislature raised the threshold and freed 20,000 small businesses from paying any tax, which provided "significant relief," Shaffer says. But while businesses want the tax wiped out completely, he says county officials across the state worry how they'd replace the tax revenue if it goes away.

zubeck@csindy.com

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