Uncertainty on the docket 

Election hopes, fears to color legislative session

click to enlarge Rep. Dave Schultheis
  • Rep. Dave Schultheis

Politicians returned to the Capitol on Wednesday for a legislative session that promises to be marked by debate over immigration and how to spend the millions of dollars reaped from a suspension of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

For the first time since 2001, lawmakers in both parties are vowing more money will salvage battered higher education and health care budgets.

But with elections looming in November, and Democrats holding the House by five seats and the Senate by one, Republicans are pushing hot-button issues like the teaching of creationism and cracking down on illegal immigration.

"Everyone is going to have an eye toward elections in November," says Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, whose seat is among of a handful that Republicans plan to target.

click to enlarge Rep. Michael Merrifield
  • Rep. Michael Merrifield

Rep. Dave Schultheis, a Colorado Springs Republican, is expected to introduce several bills on immigration. One would require local police departments to arrest undocumented workers.

Another, which Sen. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, says he will cosponsor, would eliminate or reduce government services for illegal immigrants.

Several Colorado Springs Republicans, including Rep. Richard Decker, are sympathetic to such efforts.

"The problem, as I see it, is that our culture is being diluted," Decker says.

Schultheis did not force immigration issues to the forefront during the last session, but this time, Democrats are facing more pressure on such issues. Part of the strain is coming from labor unions concerned that the quality of life for workers is slipping as they toil for lower wages and benefits.

click to enlarge Sen. Doug Lamborn
  • Sen. Doug Lamborn

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, says Democrats prefer to leave much of the immigration debate to federal politicians.

Democrats, however, could support a statewide measure to sanction employers that hire illegal immigrants.

"That's one option," Romanoff says.

Another, he adds, is his own bill, which would require that students be proficient in English before they're allowed to graduate from high school.

The money fight

click to enlarge Rep. Richard Decker
  • Rep. Richard Decker

Perhaps the biggest battle of the 120-day session will center on a surprisingly small pot of Referendum C cash.

"There's almost always a fight for limited money," notes Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy.

The referendum, which voters passed last fall, places the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights on hold for five years and delivers an estimated $3.7 billion to the budget for education, health care and highways.

But with much of the state's money already allocated, lawmakers will fight over just $114 million of this year's $505 million disbursement, Romanoff says.

"A lot of my colleagues have already submitted proposals with price tags," Romanoff says. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we have very limited funds. We will try and heed the advice of the 'no' vote on Referendum C and try to find waste and operate more efficiently."

click to enlarge Sen. Andy McElhany
  • Sen. Andy McElhany

Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who vetoed 47 bills last session, would like to see $80 million of the available money to go to highways.

Democrats say no more than one-third of the funds should go to highways, with the remainder split between education and health care.

"This session, we'll focus on jobs, schools and health care -- bread and butter issues," Romanoff says.

But Republican leaders vow to toe Owens' line.

Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs supports Owens' plan, saying it could help pave roads in southern Colorado.

click to enlarge Rep. Larry Liston
  • Rep. Larry Liston

Democrats also will attempt to make prescription drugs cheaper in Colorado by banding with other states to purchase them. Amid stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, Owens vetoed such a plan last year.

"We're going to try hard to understand his reasons and address them," Romanoff says.

El Paso County round up

Meanwhile, a statewide ban against smoking in public places seems likely to be approved, says McElhany, who detests the idea. If the Legislature fails to act, he says, a "more draconian" initiative from health organizations will surface.

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, wants to zero in on "rocket cars" by increasing penalties for drag racing. Liston's bill calls for taking hot rods off the road for up to a month, among other penalties.

Lamborn wants to exempt active-duty soldiers from paying state income taxes: "The idea came from people at Fort Carson who, frankly, don't make enough to support a family."

Merrifield says he will push a measure that would give schools the ability to check on students' eligibility for state health insurance at the same time students apply for reduced or free lunches.

And Rep. Mark Cloer, R-Colorado Springs, has a plan to address the state's nursing shortage: forgive 50 percent of student loans for nurses and 100 percent of student loans for nursing instructors. In order to qualify, both the nurses and instructors must practice in Colorado for at least five years.


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