DENVER – Colorado’s 68th General Assembly began Wednesday with promises of bipartisan cooperation and signs that it wouldn’t last.
All eyes were on Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, leader of the new Republican majority in the House. Voters delivered the House to Republicans with the slimmest possible majority, 33-32, while leaving the Senate and governor’s office in Democratic hands.
“Last November, Coloradans sent us a message; They want us to work together earnestly to find solutions to our economic ills and to set this state on the right track again,” McNulty said in his opening-day speech.
But senior leaders in both parties were vague about what those specific solutions will be, and the plans they did propose often clashed.
McNulty revealed a Republican plan to restore a spending cap in the state’s main budget. Democrats repealed it two years ago and replaced it with a looser one. But tax revenue has fallen so much that the state will not violate either the old cap or the new one this year.
McNulty also pushed for a rainy-day fund, an idea that has drawn bipartisan support in the past. He wants a savings account that could not be tapped without agreement from a supermajority of the Legislature.
With no money available for new programs, the biggest debate will be about what to cut in the budget.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer laid out the numbers. The General Fund is $6.6 billion, the same as it was nine years ago, despite Colorado ranking among the top 10 states in population growth.
Here, too, Republicans and Democrats pledged to stick to their party principles.
“On this, let me be clear. The days of balancing the state budget on the backs of working families and small businesses are over,” McNulty said.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp went further, pressing for a repeal of the tax bills Democrats adopted last year, as well as a repeal of the business personal property tax.
House Minority Leader Sal Pace said Democrats would defend their priorities – schools and welfare.
“To penalize hardworking state workers and teachers to score political points; to demonize people because of their skin color or national origins; and to balance our budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly, the sick and the young – these are not acceptable solutions to the people of Colorado,” Pace said.
On the whole, though, Republicans and Democrats were singing from the same hymn book, calling for a smaller and better government, and adequate funding for schools and roads.
But a minor partisan spat erupted even before McNulty and Pace could deliver their speeches.
Right after the November election, Republicans flexed their muscles by changing the names of three committees, stripping out the words “Labor,” “Human Services” and “Energy.”
Three House Democrats arose to ask what committees would hear labor, energy and welfare bills.
They got a curt response from House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, who said committee names have been changed in the past.
“We’re here to do the work of the people, and I would suggest we do so today,” Stephens said.
Unlike the new Republican majority in the U.S. Congress, McNulty did not arrange for the U.S. Constitution to be read on opening day. But he did put a copy of the document on every representative’s desk, along with the state constitution and legislators’ oaths of office.
Legislators were in a celebratory mood, with 21 new representatives in the chamber of 65 and 10 new senators in the chamber of 35.
Among them was Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio. Brown brought a large contingent of family and friends, including his wife, Debbie; his mother, Jean; his son, Luke; and his granddaughter, Eva.
“We need to grit our teeth and get after it. We have a lot of work to do. It’s going to take time. We’re going to need to be patient,” Brown said.