DENVER – As the 71st Colorado General Assembly prepares to convene this week, some Democrats expressed concern over how much can be accomplished because of an expected $500 million gap between Gov. John Hickelooper’s proposed budget for 2017-18 fiscal year and the money likely to be available.
Also, a potential $169 million deficit in the current budget would have to be covered by the reserve fund.
And a December revenue forecast showed a potential $215.7 million revenue shortfall to maintain the same level of appropriations in the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
While revenue projections tend to evolve and final numbers can depend on many factors, legislators realize the numbers aren’t going to be rosy.
“A lot of bills, because of our fiscal challenges, may not make it,” said Rep. KC Becker of Denver, the House majority leader.
If the projections hold, it will force both parties to prioritize the bills most important to constituents.
“We’re going to really focus on areas where we can work across the aisle and get something done,” Becker said.
For the Democrats in both chambers, the focus will be on providing funding for maintenance and expansion of transportation infrastructure and resolving issues with the state budgeting process.
“We do see structural problems in our budgeting process,” Becker said.
The problems stem from what Hickenlooper refers to as the “fiscal thicket.”
“Basically we have conflicting constitutional provisions that make it difficult to enact rational policy, or enact policies that voters actually want,” Becker said.
An example is in the interplay between the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, passed in 1992, which limits the total amount of revenue generated by taxes that can be retained by the Legislature, the Gallagher amendment passed in 1982 and Amendment 23 passed in 2000.
“Gallagher really lowered residential property taxes, which are what fund K-12 education, but through amendment 23 voters said ‘we want to make sure K-12 education is always a funding priority and has to be funded at a minimal level,’” Becker said.
The funding for K-12 under Amendment 23 is an ever-increasing level, and failure to fund through property taxes must be compensated from the general fund. But that money is not dedicated to mandated funding of institutions, Becker said. This is a problem as the Legislature is unable to hold onto additional tax dollars, per TABOR, to properly fund K-12 without taking away money for such things as the transportation system.
Concerns over transportation are growing because of a lack of funds to build, repair and maintain roads and bridges, said Lucía Guzmán, Senate minority leader.
“Transportation corridors are your economic engines, they’re literally your economic corridors, they are how goods and commerce move throughout the state,” Becker said.
As with many issue this year, it remains to be seen if there will be funding to implement a bill to resolve it, Guzmán said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to have more transportation dollars.”
Becker said she hopes steps will be taken to resolve the “fiscal thicket,” but realizes different ideas exist on how this should be done.
Guzmán is optimistic that there will be bipartisan support on the issues of transportation, budget and many others brought forward this session, she said. “Many of them are the same goals as the Republicans. The Republicans also want to find a solution to the transportation ills that we have.”
Such bipartisan support will be required for any bills to pass, as Republicans hold a one seat majority in the Senate, 18-17, while Democrats hold the house 37-28.
Guzmán said this is an “opportunity for people to be good states people, listen to what the people of Colorado have asked us to do. They want to see us get something done. They don’t want us to be like Congress, every year not getting anything done.”
The Democratic Party also will work this session on environmental conservation and protection, resolving a growing opioid crisis in the state, and finding additional funding for education, Guzmán said. “With our budget seeing a downfall we’re concerned about (having) enough dollars to invest back into our schools.”
The House Democrats will sponsor bills that cover topics that are important to all Coloradans, Becker said. “People care about public health, people care about the environment, people care about fiscal responsibility and we’re going to make sure we shape policies that reflect those things.”
Becker said she anticipates that limits to abortion rights could be an issue brought to the table by Republicans.
“We are going to continue to oppose those bills,” she said. “We think Colorado is a solidly pro-choice state. So, not only in opposing those bills are we solid from a constitutional standpoint, but we also think it’s where the majority of Coloradans are.”
The Democrats at the Capitol will deal with turnover in leadership and loss of institutional knowledge from senators and representatives leaving because of term limits, just as the Republicans are.
“Our Caucus this year is made of almost half new members, and there are seven brand new members, some who’ve come over from the House. So, they’re not totally new to the systematic approach to being a legislator,” Guzmán said.
“There’s new leadership for the House Democrats. There’s new leadership for the House Republicans, and it’s a goal of ours to make sure we are working across the aisle and working with them to make sure we have a smooth process,” Becker said.