DENVER - State senators found plenty of places to place blame, but no resolution to a $300 million hole in the budget that could crush state colleges.Meanwhile, news surfaced that as many as three veteran Democratic senators, including Jim Isgar of Hesperus, could soon be leaving the Senate.
The budget crisis had senators pointing fingers at the opposing party and even their fellow partisans. Senate President Peter Groff rejected the budget outright Thursday morning and sent it back to the Democrat-controlled Joint Budget Committee, the six-person panel that wrote the budget.
"We are very uncomfortable with the $300 million coming out of higher education. You can't gut higher ed like a fish over and over. Eventually, schools will close," Groff said.
But the committee promptly kicked the budget back into the Senate, just as news surfaced that Groff might be leaving for a Washington job.
Denver Sen. Jennifer Veiga announced Wednesday that she intends to resign in May.
It added up to a chaotic day the likes of which even veteran Capitol watchers said they had never seen.
By late Thursday night, the Senate had given initial approval to the state budget and two bills that take $500 million from a state-chartered company called Pinnacol Assurance - $300 million to plug the hole in higher education and the rest for a rainy-day fund.
Republicans decried the Pinnacol transfer.
"Here we have one of the most successful companies in the United States that we are going to socialize," said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.
Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, argued that Pinnacol is indeed owned by the state. But Pinnacol executives say they will sue the state if the bills pass, meaning the money might not be available by July 1, when the state needs it to save colleges.
"This is not a panacea, and I acknowledge that. But this is the only real solution we have on the table today to fill that hole," Shaffer said.
Much of the fight was between the six-person Joint Budget Committee and the rest of the Senate. Committee chairwoman Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, complained that most senators never showed up at the budget-writing meetings all year.
"We even pay you guys to come, and you don't come," Keller said.
Republicans also savaged the committee's efforts.
"Let's figure out how to spread the pain so the full weight doesn't fall on college kids," said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. "You didn't make tough cuts."
Keller, however, said the committee tried and rejected many exotic ideas, like selling the state lottery or large water loans.
"We don't have fluff in the budget. We're closing one prison already. That gets us maybe $6 million," Keller said. "We can't get there, even by closing two more prisons."
The GOP did float a plan to cut state employee salaries, plus various departments such as prisons, agriculture and public defenders - cuts that added up to $115 million. But when combined with Republicans' insistence on keeping the senior property-tax exemption, the GOP plan saved only $29 million.
Colorado Springs Republican Keith King pushed an idea to redirect money from K-12 schools into colleges, arguing it could be done under Amendment 23, the voter-approved mandate for K-12 spending.
But that would require a special waiver from the federal government to use stimulus bill money in a way that Congress didn't intend, Democrats said.
"I'm not saying we are going to get this waiver. But what if we get tied up in the courts for two years with Pinnacol?" King said.
Democrats defeated King's plan.
Gov. Bill Ritter said he has worked closely with the Joint Budget Committee since last fall, and his budget chief met with Pinnacol officials Thursday. But if Ritter had any cards to play, he didn't put them on the table Thursday.
"We still have a few weeks before the end of the session. There's still much work to be done," Ritter said.
Senators worked into the night Thursday. They plan to be off today for the Easter weekend. Final Senate approval of the budget is scheduled for Monday, after which the House will get its turn.