Partisan spending rift divides lawmakers, governor
DENVER — With Colorado’s legislative session due to start next week, the main agenda item for Gov. John Hickenlooper seems dead on arrival, a sign that the state’s partisan divides and unorthodox spending limits will continue to paralyze it in 2016.
Partisan sniping over Hickenlooper’s proposal to shuffle money around in the state budget to avoid having to refund it to taxpayers is setting the stage for a long standoff over balancing the books. And it underscores how a governor who depicts himself as able to transcend partisanship increasingly seems captive to it.
The topic of debate is the usual suspect: Money.
Hickenlooper wants lawmakers to reclassify about $750 million next year coming from a fee on hospital patients. The reclassification would remove that sum from Colorado’s constitutional spending limits and allow the state to spend more money without asking voters, as would otherwise be required under the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.
Hickenlooper says the hospital fee is Colorado’s best shot at paying for road improvements, education, a new state water distribution plan and other priorities. Colorado attracted about 100,000 new residents last year, and the governor says the state needs to keep tax collections even if they’re growing faster than the spending cap allows.
“What are the alternative plans that have been generated to produce the kind of revenues we need to move the state forward?” Hickenlooper said to reporters Wednesday. “I so far haven’t seen a place where there is sufficient revenue to build the kind of infrastructure this state needs to compete.”
Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst this week called the hospital fee reclassification a “fix” to avoid refunding excess tax collections to taxpayers.
“We should be using that money to invest in infrastructure, to invest in education,” Hullinghorst told a group of business owners. “If we don’t do that, we are putting our Colorado way of life at risk.”
But the plan is going over like a lead balloon with the GOP, which controls the state Senate and has an equal say on the budget-writing committee.
Republicans have called Hickenlooper’s budget proposal a “shell game.” GOP Senate President Bill Cadman even called reporters to his office Wednesday to describe the plan as illegal. He cited a nonbinding legal opinion from the Legislature’s own lawyers, an opinion Democrats dispute but could gird Republican opposition to the plan.
“This will not stand,” Cadman declared.
Without some support from the GOP, Hickenlooper’s budget plan is doomed.
The governor seemed glum this week about his options. The alternatives, he said, won’t work.
One would be to ask voters about keeping money that exceeds constitutional spending limits. Voters overwhelmingly defeated a 2013 ballot measure backed by Hickenlooper to increase taxes for education.
“If you went and took it to the voters, I think it’s highly possible, let’s just say that, that they’d vote it down,” Hickenlooper said.
Another option — issuing bonds to pay for road improvements — wouldn’t likely generate enough money to do the job, Hickenlooper said.
The GOP wants Democrats to consider issuing bonds to pay for road upgrades, a plan Cadman called “a pretty good idea.”
And the GOP says Democrats are ignoring a cash-hungry elephant in the room — Medicaid spending. They argue that Colorado’s budget woes are being caused by Democrats’ decision to expand Medicaid — some of it as part of the federal health care overhaul, some of it because of changes instituted by Democrats.
Colorado is spending about $2.5 billion this year on the health care plan for the needy, and the governor projects that number to go up another $80 million next year.
“Putting more people onto Medicaid is eating up more and more of the budget,” House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso said.
Both sides said the chilly climate at the Capitol this week doesn’t mean the parties and the governor won’t mend fences. Hickenlooper worked with a divided Legislature when he first took office, and the budget impasse doesn’t mean he’s incapable of working across the aisle, Republicans said.
“We can do this,” Cadman said.
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