Budget moves to Senate
Rep. Al White lone Republican to vote in favor
Denver The vagaries of the Colorado Legislature's budget process left House District 57 Rep. Al White of Hayden as the lone Republican voting in favor of the $17.6 billion budget that now goes to the Senate for debate.
Thursday's 40-24 House vote fell strictly along party lines except for White, who is the lone House Republican on the 6-member Joint Budget Committee, which has spent the past five months setting line-by-line budget figures for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
White said his role is to present his minority party's position during the committee work, but once the bill is introduced, he must defend it.
"I didn't vote to support everything that's in the budget, but once it becomes our document, then even though there are things I don't like necessarily, I have to support it," White said. "That's just the process, just the protocol that we've developed in Joint Budget Committee over the years."
White won't be released by the JBC's unified position until the committee meets again to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, at which time he goes back to representing the Republican caucus.
"We all respect that and understand what his role is," said House Minority Leader Ron May, R-Parker, who appointed White to the JBC. "There has to be some process here. If you get on the floor and you have the JBC fighting each other, the process doesn't work so well."
White stood with JBC Chairman Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, during more than 10 hours of floor debate Wednesday about the so-called "long bill," which JBC introduced as House Bill 1375. It increases state spending by about $500 million more than the current fiscal year.
"Our priorities should be for our children, and that's clearly stated in this budget," Buescher said. "We made the choice to insure tens of thousands more children, keep a college education affordable and take 1,000 off the waiting list of services for our citizens with development disabilities."
Republicans countered that growing government and expanding the state payroll by more than 1,300 new employees was anti-family.
"Colorado families who are struggling to make ends meet are not going to benefit from the government taking more of their hard earned money for expanding government programs," May said. "We would be much wiser to live within our means and return some of this money to the taxpayers who need it the most."
The House approved four of the 77 amendments that were prepared for the marathon floor debate. The rest were defeated, withdrawn or ruled "out of order" because they attempted to create legislation in the budget process.
"This is a real exercise in futility and a real effort in endurance," said Rep. Ray Rose, R-Montrose. "All the amendments that go on here will be stripped off in the Senate, they will have their say, we won't concur, it will go to conference committee, which is the JBC and it will come back out basically in the same way (it was introduced)."
The amendments offered by Democrats dealt mostly with shifting relatively small amounts of money from one agency or program to another.
One of the few that passed was sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, to use more severance tax revenue to fund the operations of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She overturned the JBC's recommendation that the industry be assessed more in fees to pay for the commission's increased workload.
Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, led the unsuccessful charge against adding 21 new employees to the oil and gas commission to handle energy production activity once new rules that cover environmental, health and wildlife impacts go into effect.
Sonnenberg said the Department of Natural Resources, the parent department for the Oil and Gas Commission, failed to mention the fiscal impact when the Legislature last year approved new rules for energy development.
"They said last year there would be no fiscal impact, and now they are asking for $2 million more than 21 more employees," Sonnenberg said. "It would be irresponsible to give it to them now."
Curry countered, however, that last year's bill only anticipated the rule making, while the budget for next year anticipates an increased workload as a result of the new rules.
In his briefing to the Democratic caucus, Buescher said $40 million was added to the budget to fund more preschool and full-day kindergarten slots and to put 70 new counselors in middle and high schools; while higher education received a $72 million increase mostly for grants and scholarships.
It also recommends increased state spending for child health care, developmentally disabled care, increasing provider payments to doctors who treat Medicaid patients and several other health care programs.
Buescher, with a little help from White, beat back several Republican attempts to cut back the funding increases and put more money into a controlled maintenance trust fund that could be used as a reserve account if revenue drops. He noted the budget contains the required 4 percent reserve account for emergency spending.
The Republicans also argued revenue should be set aside in the event the state loses a challenge to last year's law that froze the property tax mill levy at 27 mills. They said as much as $118 million would have to be returned to taxpayers if action is reversed.
Another JBC member, Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said he was confident the state would win its case.
"But even if we don't, we dealt with the downturn in 2002, and we will deal with it again if we have to," Pommer said.