DENVER – House Democrats failed to budge Republicans on the state budget Wednesday night, but they gathered plenty of ammunition for their campaign to take back the majority in 2012.
The major elements of a carefully crafted deal on the $7 billion state budget are still intact – a $250 million cut to education, instead of the $332 million cut Gov. John Hickenlooper had proposed; the end of sales taxes on software and farm supplies; and a $40 million expense to pay businesses to collect sales taxes.
Republicans, Senate Democrats and Hickenlooper worked out the deal last week, but House Democrats did not sign on – something that became obvious Wednesday as they proposed dozens of changes to the deal and voted against the overall state budget.
It was a mirror image of past years, when Republicans were in the minority and mostly voted against the state budget.
Despite the role reversal, it didn’t take long for the debate to return to familiar themes of business tax cuts vs. schools.
Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, began the debate by anticipating Democratic moves to take money the state pays businesses to collect sales taxes and redirect it to schools.
“These are the Coloradans who are fueling Colorado’s economic recovery, and they should be thanked, not disparaged as special interests,” McNulty said.
But a few hours later, the debate got heated at the first mention of the $40 million vendor fee, which the state pays to businesses that collect sales taxes.
Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, said businesses benefit from government services such as police and fire protection and clean water.
“These are services, folks, and this is what civil society does. It pays taxes to have services, and businesses benefit from these just like you and I do. I am so tired of the notion that our businesses are so put upon. They are beneficiaries of living in a civil society,” Court said.
Despite the bluster, Wednesday’s debate was just the first act.
The last major hurdle for the budget will be today, when the House takes final, recorded votes. Those votes will serve as the official record of where representatives stood, and they typically serve as fodder for campaign ads and debates.
Budget day might be the only time that representatives would prefer to be in the minority. Not only does the majority bear the burden of supplying enough votes to pass the budget, but the minority can propose amendments that pit one program against another.
For example, Democrats proposed cutting private prisons in order to keep open Fort Lyon prison in Bent County. Like the other two dozen Democratic amendments, it failed.
Democrats also failed to defeat House Bill 1293, which reinstates a sales-tax exemption for software in July 2012.
And they tried and failed to repeal new monthly fees of up to $50 for some families on the state’s health-insurance plan for low-income children.
When Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Denver, complained the Republicans said no to every Democratic idea, she brought a sharp retort from House Majority leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument.
“It’s tough to do the hard things. It’s been about yes to balancing the budget. It’s been about yes to school kids. It’s been about yes to actually moving the state forward,” Stephens said. “I actually find it insulting, because I really do think that this body is trying to do the tough work.”
The man in the middle was Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the only House Democrat to support the budget. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, Ferrandino followed tradition of voting with the JBC and against his own party.
He voted for the budget the last four years, as well, when he was in the majority, and he chided Stephens and Republicans for complaining about opposition from Democrats this year.
“Every year, we’ve balanced the budget, and one side has always voted for the most part no and hasn’t made the tough decisions,” Ferrandino said. “I think it’s a little insulting to say we’re not making the tough decisions.”