Legislature erupts into shouts and accusations over negotiations on major bills

The Capitol seen from Luis Benitez's office in the state Outdoor Recreation Industry Oddice. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; skyline; cityscape;
The Capitol seen from Luis Benitez's office in the state Outdoor Recreation Industry Oddice. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; skyline; cityscape;
The Colorado State Capitol. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Marianne Goodland, originally published at The Colorado Independent.

The state Capitol erupted Tuesday morning into a loud and sometimes profane blame game over the state budget, a bill to ask voters to pony up more in sales taxes for transportation and the measure that would free up millions for hospitals, rural roads and rural schools.

With the legislative session scheduled to end May 10, Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City, the transportation bill’s co-sponsor, admitted he doesn’t have the votes from the Senate Finance Committee’s Republicans to get the bill to the Senate floor. The finance committee is scheduled to hear the bill next Tuesday. “We’ve worked on this for five months and we have five days to figure this out,” he said.

The sticking point is asking voters to hike the state sales tax. The measure, as amended by the Senate Transportation Committee last week, asks for a 0.5 percentage point increase, to hike the tax from 2.9 percent to 3.4 percent. That’s a compromise from the bill’s original proposal of a 0.62 percentage point increase.

Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, the bill’s other co-sponsor in the Senate, said he is still optimistic and will continue to work for a solution between now and Tuesday. But should the measure fail, at least three ballot measures are in the works, although Grantham opined that lawmakers might be less happy with what outside groups come up with.

Then there’s the hospital provider fee.

The measure was supposed to be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning. But ten minutes before the hearing, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, one of the measure’s co-sponsors, angrily said he was done negotiating with House Democrats.

Sonnenberg met with Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran Wednesday evening, a meeting that did not include his Senate partner on the bill, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver. That led to a “politically energized communication with the Speaker in the wee hours of this day,” Guzman said, where she told Duran that “This is my bill” and indicated she wanted Duran to butt out.

The sticking point: a provision in the provider fee bill to lower the state’s spending limit. The bill as introduced would reduce the state’s spending limit by $670.3 million, to account for the amount of money that would be removed from the spending limit by reclassifying the provider fee into an enterprise, a government-owned business where the money goes to a specific purpose.

Sonnenberg’s compromise was to drop the spending limit by half that amount – $335 million – but said that House Democrats refuse to consider any reduction in the spending cap. “I have come more than halfway…I’m done talking. If we’re not going to have negotiations in good faith, there’s no point in having the damn bill.” But in-between leaving Grantham’s office and appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, a period of less than 20 minutes, Sonnenberg’s position apparently softened, and he asked the committee to delay acting on the bill.

The Democrats’ position on the spending limit is that lowering the limit would result in the state bumping up against its spending limit in a year or two, and a return to taxpayer refunds, according to Guzman. “There’s major complications on the movement of dialogue,” she said, describing the tense negotiations of the past week. She added she hopes to meet with Sonnenberg, possibly today, if he didn’t kill the bill.

Onto the 2017-18 budget, which also has Grantham worked up.

While the House finished working on the state budget almost two weeks ago, the Joint Budget Committee hasn’t been able to begin working out the differences between the House and Senate version.

That’s because House Democrats have held up action on two bills that help balance the budget. For now, the budget is out of balance by $264 million.

If that figure sounds familiar, it should. It’s the amount of the reduction in the provider fee revenue, a request Grantham pointed out was initiated by Gov. John Hickenlooper and put into the budget-balancing by Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon. Hamner explained this morning that if they don’t reduce the revenue by $264 million, the JBC would have to find that money elsewhere, likely in an identical cut in the operating budget. Budget writers have already closed a gap of $696 million in the 2017-18 budget.

House Democrats responded immediately Thursday morning by passing both bills in a matter of minutes. The provider fee reduction bill passed in less than a minute without any discussion, a sharp contrast to the hour-long debate in the Senate last month, where Senate Democrats launched a furious attack on reducing the provider fee revenue, arguing it would be a disaster for hospitals. The second bill, on transfers to fund capital construction, also passed the House relatively quickly.

Looming over lawmakers’ heads: the possibility of a special session past the May 10 adjournment date,  to resolve either parts of or all of this whole mess. The notion of a special session, which can be called by either the governor or the General Assembly, has now been raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers.

Update:

Duran and House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder responded to the criticisms leveled by Senate leaders. Duran told reporters that the $335 million offer by Sonnenberg is “irresponsible,” since reducing the spending cap would just put the state back in the position of taxpayer refunds in a year or two.

“The numbers don’t add up,” Duran said. “We’re more than willing to stay at the table” and continue negotiations. Becker added that if the Republicans don’t like what the Democrats offered Wednesday, “they can come back with another proposal.” Becker hinted that they have other “creative options” but refused to say what those are.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to proposed tax increases of 0.05 and 0.062 percent. It has been updated to show the proper figures of 0.5 and 0.62 percentage points.