Northwestern Colorado Sen. Al White offers a vivid description of life as the lone Senate Republican on a Joint Budget Committee that must defend the JBC's effort to balance the state's budget in the wake of plummeting revenue.
White, R-Hayden, frequently is opposed by the other 13 Senate Republicans in the debate about where to cut programs or services; whether or not to increase fees; or raiding a plush workmen's compensation fund to prevent decimating state support to higher education.
"I tell people it's like living in the basement of a 13-hole outhouse," White said as the Senate prepared to open debate on the JBC's proposed $17.9 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Senate debated the so-called "long bill" for several hours Thursday and was scheduled to take a final vote Monday after taking today off in observance of Good Friday and Passover.
The budget bill (SB 259) is accompanied by several other JBC measures that require specific changes in the law before money can become available for general fund spending.
One of the most controversial is Senate Bill 273, which has White as the primary sponsor. It would require the board of Pinnacol Assurance, by far the largest workman's compensation insurer in the state, to transfer $500 million of its reserve into the state treasury so the budget can get balanced.
Proponents argue the Pinnacol money is the only way to avoid cutting another $300 million from state support to higher education, which some say could lead to closing some community colleges and lead to double-digit increases in tuition.
Opponents, including most Republicans, argue Pinnacol is a private company whose assets can't be raided by the government.
"Now, we have government truly taking money from a private county and taking over a private company to solve our fiscal problems," said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch during a committee hearing on White's bill. "I'm a 'no' vote of this effort to socialize Colorado."
White refuted claims that the money would come too late to save higher education funding this year because of Pinnacol's threat of a lawsuit if the bill passes.
"They say that, but I think if the statute changes, they've got an obligation to follow the statute," White said. "They have to maintain their licensure in the state of Colorado, and I don't know how they could do that and refuse to follow statute."
White also would like nothing better than to find a way around the Pinnacol fight. One alternative, he said, could be seeking waivers to get more benefit from the federal stimulus package.
"It's ridiculous, we've got several billion dollars worth of federal dollars coming our way in the next couple of years, and we can't fill a $300 million budget hole to balance our budget," White said. "Come on, something not's right there, folks."
Meanwhile, Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, as a member of the House Education Committee, still is waiting get his first look at the School Finance Act that was rammed through the Senate a week ago.
"I haven't even seen it yet," Baumgardner said.
A key House Democrat confirmed the school finance bill is being slowed down in the House.
"We're not going to fast track something that's so important," said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, the vice-chair of the House Education Committee. "We're going to slow down a bit and have some thoughtful conversation about it."
Senate Bill 256, touted by its sponsors as ground-breaking reform with emphasis on at-risk children, was introduced March 30, approved by two committees during the week and passed second and third readings in the full Senate by the following Friday.
Sen. Roy Romer, D-Denver, argued passage of the bill as he introduced it would put Colorado in the front-runner's position to receive federal funds under President Barack Obama's school incentive program called "A Race to the Top."
However, Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien also announced this week that she is assembling a team to position Colorado in the "Race to the Top," which could bring as much as $500 million in education grant funds to the winning states.
Solano said the complicated formula for funding children in the at-risk category will get a hard look in the committee, which has yet to schedule a hearing on the measure.
"It sort of takes away from our focus on early childhood education and changes the way we previously funded at-risk kids to focus on those high poverty schools in certain pockets of the state," said Solano, a retired school teacher.
"I think this at-risk money is too important statewide to have it concentrated in just the Denver area," she said.
As it currently stands, the school finance bill pumps almost $5.7 billion into public education for the 2009-10 fiscal year - a 6.39 percent increase - with almost $3.7 billion of the total coming from state funds. The rest is raised through local property taxes.
Baumgardner said there isn't much he can do to guide debate about the budget or school finance being a first-term lawmaker and one of only 27 Republicans in the House to the Democrats' 38.
"It's frustrating to say the least," he said. "There's no money and being in the minority party, what are you going to do? We can contest whatever we want to, but that's about it."