Legislature sends 'long' bill to governor

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— DENVER - The General Assembly sent Gov. Bill Ritter a $17.9 billion budget Wednesday, the same day the governor announced a new plan for ending the six-percent limit on spending increases.

Lawmakers barely met the deadline for sending the so-called "long" bill (Senate Bill 259) to the governor with enough time to consider any possible vetoes of line items or footnotes before their mandatory May 6 adjournment.

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee that wrote the budget, was the only Senate Republican to vote "yes" on the final budget bill, which outlines state spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, was one of 13 House Republicans to oppose it. They argued the new budget didn't do enough to cut government spending, and it hurts senior citizens who will lose a property tax exemption for another two years.

Ritter, State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and a group of lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Don Marostica, of Loveland, put Senate Bill 228 back on the front burner with a new plan for eliminating what Ritter called "the conflicting and restrictive fiscal handcuff" on the budget process.

Ritter said several weeks of negotiations had produced a new plan to repeal the 6-percent limit on growth in government spending that has been in place since 1992 and replace it with a new limit based on personal income growth.

The governor said the change is needed to eliminate the "ratchet-down effect," that prevents the state from recovering from economic downturns such as the one Colorado now is in.

"This doesn't mean the state spent any additional revenue," Ritter said. "It doesn't increase revenue, which is currently limited by TABOR (Taxpayer's Bill of Rights). It does mean we spend the revenue we do have more effectively and wisely."

The governor said the new plan contains provisions for increasing the budget reserve account from 4 percent to 10 percent, and end year-to-year fluctuations in funding for transportation and capital construction. However, guaranteed funding for infrastructure would not kick in until fiscal year 2012-13 and then only if personal income growth from the previous year is greater than 5 percent.

The Republican leaders of the House and Senate were quick to denounce the new plan.

"If we accept that this is not required to be approved by the voters, we've now broken down the fence and the cattle are out," said House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker. "Nothing matters if you get rid of the guardrails."

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said the new plan does nothing for highway funding.

"The announcement puts an exclamation point on a fiscally reckless agenda pushed by Democrats and this governor throughout this session," said Penry, who frequently is mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2010.

The new budget no longer depends on Pinnacol Assurance funds to make up a $300 million deficit. Pinnacol's surplus was taken off the table after Ritter announced an end to negotiations with the state's largest workmen's compensation insurance company.

Still alive, however, is Senate Bill 281, which requires Pinnacol to submit to a state audit and sets up an interim legislative committee to determine the extent of state control over Colorado's largest workmen's compensation insurer.

"We created an entity that we don't know what it is," said the bill's House sponsor, House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville. "We need to figure out what Pinnacol is and what reserves they should and should not have."

Two highly emotional bills passed by 1-vote margins in the House on Tuesday.

Baumgardner opposed both of them.

In one of the most dramatic moments in this year's session, everyone in the House chamber and gallery had to wait at least a full minute for Rep. Edward Vigil, D-Fort Garland, to cast the deciding 33rd vote for Weissmann's House Bill 1274, which would end the death penalty in Colorado.

The House also voted 33-32 on an amended bill that suspends the state's Homestead Exemption another two years. Opponents argued senior citizens could be taxed out of their homes without the break on their property taxes, but other lawmakers noted seniors could defer payments on property taxes until the house is sold.

The House also spent several hours this week debating a new bill from Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Longmont, to change the way Urban Renewal Authorities establish and finance new projects.

Hullinghorst wants counties, school and special districts more involved in the process and to benefit more from enhanced sales tax revenue. Opponents argued her bill would make it more difficult, if not impossible, to get bonding for new projects.

"This gives all taxing entities a seat at the table," Hullinghorst said. "There is a strong incentive for all to work together."

Under the bill, a URA would get all the revenue from the new project for the first five years, but then would have to share 50 percent of it with all the other taxing districts in the urban renewal area.

Opponents argued the measure, which still must be considered by the Senate, would dry up bond financing for urban renewal projects.

"We keep hearing it doesn't affect bonding, but if after five years, only 50 percent go to TIF (tax increment financing) you would not be able to do bonds," Marostica said. "This bill is extremely dangerous."

The Senate finally took a final vote on a contentious bill that removes the requirement for a second background check at gun shows for buyers who already hold a permit to carry a concealed weapons permit.

White, who sponsored the original bill that allows concealed carry permits to be issued by county sheriffs in Colorado, supported House Bill 1180.

The bill now goes back to the House, which passed a much weaker version in February to require only that a person show proof of citizenship or be in the country legally before obtaining a permit.

The Senate debate regarding HB 1180 occurred within the shadow of Monday's 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, in which two students killed 12 others and one teacher before taking their own lives.

The bill, with Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, as primary sponsors, is another in a long series of legislative attempts to change Amendment 22, which voters passed in the wake of Columbine to require instant background checks at gun shows.

"The guns used by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had been purchased at gun shows without a background check," said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. "This is a horrible way to commemorate the 10th anniversary by undoing Amendment 22."

King said he would try to get the House to go long with the Senate changes, adding that his bill has nothing to do with Columbine.

"We are talking about hard working, honest, crime-free citizens just exercising their 2nd Amendment rights," he said. "They've gone through all the hoops that we require to have a CCW permit : and they should be able to purchase a gun without jumping through another hoop."

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