DENVER – Legislators completed an epic role reversal Thursday on a vote to balance the state budget.
House Republicans voted to take money from local government grants – a practice they railed against for years when they were in the minority – while Democrats who voted for it when they ruled the House last year opposed it Thursday.
The vote on Senate Bill 164 showed that when it comes to government budgets, lawmakers are often driven less by philosophy than by necessity and political opportunity.
For the majority party, a balanced budget is a necessity, because the constitution requires it. For the minority, budget votes are an opportunity to force the other side into taking embarrassing positions on the record.
Both themes were on display during a harried week of negotiations to keep the state budget in balance.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, summed up the situation in a committee hearing Tuesday, after switching his vote on SB 164 from no to yes.
“I am, while principled, also pragmatic, and it is important that we move this forward,” Gardner said.
In a nominally bipartisan vote Thursday morning, six Democrats and 30 Republicans voted for SB 164, what legislators call the “cash transfer” bill. It balances the budget by diverting cash savings accounts filled with natural-gas and oil tax money, which is supposed to be used for grants to local governments and water projects.
The vote was a reverse from last year, when only Democrats voted for a similar cash-transfer bill. And it was the opposite of the Senate’s vote Monday, where all the majority Democrats voted for SB 164 and all the minority Republicans against it.
After the vote, both Democratic and Republican leaders hailed it as a bipartisan achievement.
“It turned into a real bipartisan effort to let that happen,” said Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.
The final vote required sacrifice of many Republicans, including Ignacio Rep. J. Paul Brown, who voted yes despite his co-sponsorship of a separate bill to block raids of local government savings accounts.
“It stinks,” Brown said. “I don’t like it. I feel like we’ve been put in a corner.”
Brown blamed bad budgeting in previous years and said a balanced budget this year is not optional.
“We have to make sure it happens. We are in the majority, so there is some pressure,” Brown said.
Brown wasn’t the only Republican forced into an uncomfortable position while the bill’s fate hung in the balance this week.
The bill was about to die in a committee meeting Tuesday morning when three Democrats and four Republicans voted against it. The chairman, Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, pulled it off the table in the middle of the vote, which was about to end in a 6-7 defeat for the bill.
Half an hour later, Becker brought the bill back, and four Republicans switched their votes to yes.
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is sponsoring a bill to end cash transfers out of local government and water accounts. But he delayed a vote on the bill earlier this week and now says he will amend it so it does not take effect until 2013.
Coram was one of three Republicans who voted against the cash-transfer bill Thursday morning. He said he understands why other Republicans voted to take the local government money, but he wants the Legislature to wean itself off the practice.
“The sad thing about this is, these cuts, they had to be made. If the Democrats were in charge of the House and they made the cuts, the Republicans would be complaining about it,” Coram said.
Fourteen Democrats voted for a cash-transfer bill last year, House Bill 1327, and switched their votes to no on this year’s SB 164.
Nineteen Republicans who voted against last year’s bill voted yes Thursday.
Democrats can use Thursday’s vote against Republicans in vulnerable districts, like Brown’s.
Some voters in Southwest Colorado have already received an automated phone call targeting Brown for an earlier vote this year, and votes like Thursday’s make perfect fodder for “robocalls” and attack mailers during campaign season.
This week’s drama was only the beginning. It was limited to the current year’s budget, which was about $300 million out of balance.
The big fights will be over next year’s budget, which will hit the Legislature in late March and early April. Gov. John Hickenlooper shocked many people Tuesday with his proposal for next year to cut $500 per student from public schools.
The lone House Democrat on the budget committee that proposed the cash transfer said he was happy to see some of his party members support the plan, even though they are in the minority this year. And he was happy to see the Republicans’ change of heart.
“If we’re going to balance the budget, it’s going to take both parties,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “We all have a responsibility to govern. Everybody, no matter who’s in charge, should take responsibility.”