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Voters aren't likely to see much progress in this year's legislative blame game

In the state Legislature's opening week, Democratic and Republican lawmakers came together to pass a bill aimed at obtaining federal education reform money. Given the challenging budget environment, and considering that talk of midterm elections is already contentious, such quick bipartisan decision-making could have been embraced as a surprising, inspiring harbinger of hope.

But, no.

"Everyone knows this is going to be a tough political season," says Senate Majority Leader John Morse.

Translation: Expect a lot of mudslinging as Republicans and Democrats try to assign blame for the current $1 billion-plus budget shortfall.

Republicans seem to have the wind behind them, with Gov. Bill Ritter's recent decision not to vie for a second term playing into their narrative that Democrats, who have controlled the governorship since 2006 and both legislative chambers since 2004, have screwed things up.

Democrats, by contrast, must push their own agenda and make painful cuts, all while painting the picture that the budget mess is the result of revenue and spending restrictions created by constitutional amendments, particularly the Republicans' beloved Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

The reality is that few Republicans will see any political upside for working with their Democratic colleagues. Rep. Mark Waller, a freshman Republican from Colorado Springs, says the goal is resisting Democratic initiatives while hoping the 2010 election changes the game: "We're going to be playing a lot of defense this season."

Looking for solutions

The same could be said of Democrats.

Last year, they celebrated a bill that would raise about $250 million a year to fix pot-holed roads and rusting bridges — by boosting vehicle registration fees an average of $40. It was cast as a mini-stimulus package that would provide thousands of jobs while repairing infrastructure.

Now, Republicans look to scale back that legislation, if not do away with it entirely, on the grounds that it's an unauthorized tax increase and an unnecessary burden.

"There need to be some changes there," Waller says.

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, concedes some problems with late registration fees in particular; they went from a loose $10, collected at the discretion of county clerks, to $25 a month, capped at $100. Merrifield says the late fee can be adjusted, but says the state can't afford to undo the law entirely; he quips that some bridges should bear signs reading, "Cross at your own risk."

"We came up with a necessary solution," Merrifield says, "and now they are going to bash us."

That debate plays into a national back-and-forth about government spending and whether it can help re-start a slumping economy. Job creation "isn't free," Morse argues, and since the new fees only took effect in July, much of it simply hasn't happened yet.

If the philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats concerning taxes and job creation is huge, it may be even bigger on environmental priorities.

Republican gubernatorial front-runner Scott McInnis, unveiling his "strategic plan" in Colorado Springs on Jan. 13 (the same day the Legislature convened in Denver), chided Democrats for being, in his view, hostile to the oil and gas industry, arguing that they're costing the state jobs.

The next day, Ritter made it clear in his State of the State address that he wants to move even further away from oil and gas dependency by requiring that electricity providers meet 30 percent of their demand with renewable energy sources, instead of the current 20 percent.

Merrifield fights the Republican contention that focusing on green energy and jobs has hurt the state: "I think [Ritter's new goal] will have a positive impact on the economy."

Education battlefield

The legislative session started swiftly for Merrifield, who co-sponsored the education bill that passed both chambers and was signed by Ritter to assist in pursuing federal money. The law helps institutions that train teachers figure out what works and what doesn't by tracking how their former students perform in classrooms.

That happy note aside, K-through-12 education, largely spared in earlier budget cuts, could lose its protected status this year. Legislators are considering plans to reduce education funding by $223 million, in spite of Amendment 23 requirements that spending increase each year.

Merrifield, a former music teacher and chair of the House education committee, says it's too early to say what those cuts would mean. But he could envision larger class sizes and reductions in school bus service.

"It's going to be difficult for the districts," he says.

In all, up to $1.5 billion in new fees, suspended tax breaks and cuts to education and other government departments means a lot of ugliness for Democrats.

Republicans clearly see an opening to regain the governor's mansion, and possibly the Legislature. Waller sounds giddy talking about the "buzz" he felt at a recent fundraiser and his chances for being in the majority, assuming he wins re-election.

Predictably, Morse still expects his party to do OK in November. But he notes that the Dems' crucial task now is to explain exactly why and how cuts are being made, and to hope voters understand.

Governing is hard, Morse says, adding: "Anyone who says it's easy is lying to you."

lane@csindy.com

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