If the primary job of government is deciding how and where to spend money, this was not the most fun year to be a lawmaker. With the entire country in recession, elected officials at every level were challenged to find ways of trimming budgets - a task that makes no one happy. The Colorado Legislature, for the most part, handled an unpleasant job well in the 2009 session that ended Wednesday.
Charged with balancing the state's $17.9 billion budget in an economic climate that created an unfavorable disparity between revenues and expenditures, legislators sought ways to reverse that formula - by way of cuts as well as measures to increase funding - without causing Colorado residents, businesses, governmental entities and essential programs too much pain. It was no easy feat, and lawmakers made some necessary, if difficult, decisions.
Not least among these was the passage of the state budget, which was balanced only because lawmakers found places to trim, transfer and tax - none of which wins fans among constituents, but are necessary when facing the projected $1.4 billion shortfall over two years. Among the cuts made by lawmakers was $16 million in state payrolls, a move that will be felt by workers who likely will have unpaid days off before the next budget year is through.
Lawmakers also voted to suspend the senior property tax exemption for one year, a move projected to generate $90 million for the state. While that is certainly an uncomfortable decision to sell, it is representative of just how dire the budgeting process was - that the state's essential programs and services survived the session relatively unscathed is impressive.
In fact, lawmakers were able to boost funding by $250 million - with the help of fee increases on motor vehicle registration - for repairs to bridges and roads. While the list of transportation needs perpetually outpaces the number of dollars available to meet it, there are real safety concerns associated with infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair and funding those upgrades is essential.
Fortunately, they did not come at the expense of other critical programs, including higher education or health care - both of which avoided the chopping block during the legislative session.
The Health Care Affordability Act will bring $600 million into the state's coffers in the form of a hospital provider fee that will be matched by federal Medicaid money. The combined revenues will help extend health-care coverage to 100,000 uninsured, low-income Coloradans. That is an especially important priority given increasing unemployment numbers associated with the recession.
Between federal stimulus money and state legislative action, higher education in Colorado will not face either significant cuts or tuition increases in the coming year. Additionally, lawmakers passed a measure that will allow more high school students to earn college credits while finishing their work in secondary school. That transitional program not only encourages students to seek higher education, but makes it less expensive and more efficient. It is a positive investment.
A less palatable decision was the Legislature's rejection of a measure that would have offered in-state tuition status to the children of illegal immigrants. There is little reason to deny that status, and many reasons not to - not least of which is the potential to produce greater numbers of educated Colorado youths. Lawmakers should be encouraging such efforts in every way feasible and in voting down Senate Bill 170, they failed.
Not so in approving House Bill 1292, though. This measure codified the lengthy and thorough process that produced new gas and oil drilling rules for the state. These rules give greater weight to wildlife, environmental issues, landowner rights and public-health concerns than previously considered when granting gas and oil companies access to the resources so plentiful in the state, and in La Plata County in particular. Despite loud and plentiful protests from the industry, legislators approved the new rules - and rightly so.
In all, the 2009 legislative session was a successful one, particularly given the unsavory to-do list lawmakers were forced to tackle. With creative but considered legislation - such as a measure repealing a sales tax exemption on cigarettes - the most painful cuts were avoided. At the same time, innovative new efforts were begun to keep the state moving when the economy recovers. For that balance, legislators deserve great credit.