DENVER – State Rep. Don Coram of Montrose may become the latest Republican to break from GOP leadership to support a controversial restructuring of a hospital provider fee to free money.
Coram told The Durango Herald on Thursday that he is leaning in favor of the legislation, which is sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst.
“I will probably, more than likely, support the hospital provider fee,” Coram said.
He would become one of a handful of Republicans to publicly support the effort.
The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Republican Larry Crowder of Alamosa, who has been criticized by conservative groups and fellow Republican lawmakers for his support.
The measure is expected to come up for debate by the full House next week.
Coram said he expects a handful of Republicans in the House to break from their party and support the bill. The possibility of more bipartisan support offers a different tone than the partisan gridlock that has plagued the debate so far.
The legislation would restructure the fee as an enterprise fund, or government-owned business. Established by lawmakers in 2009, the fee is assessed on hospitals to force a match of additional federal health care dollars.
The plan would exempt the fee from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, taking the revenue out of the TABOR calculation and lowering taxpayer refunds set aside in the general fund, thereby freeing money for spending.
If the restructuring passes, it would increase distributions of revenue to hospitals by $146.6 million. The increase would be spent on large Medicaid populations, especially in rural Colorado.
Separate of the permanent restructuring is another piece of legislation that would direct as much as $155.7 million in newly available money to such things as schools and transportation, if the restructuring passes.
“Honestly, if you’re really looking to protect your rural districts, where our Medicaid uses in hospitals are higher than the state average, we benefit from that,” Coram said. “We need to stop kicking the can down the road.”
When asked whether he is afraid of criticism from fellow Republicans and right-leaning groups, Coram responded: “I don’t care.
“I had a life before I was elected to office, and I will have a life after.”
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, also is considering supporting the restructuring, but he has a list of demands that must be met through budget discussions, which began Thursday in the House.
“I’m listening,” Brown said. “But I want something. I want highway funding. ... I want restoration of severance taxes. ... I want us to work on the negative factor (gap in K-12 education funding.)”
The bill is expected to pass out of the Democratic-controlled House. The question is what leadership will do in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs has made it clear that he wants to address the overall base of tax revenues that would be tied to a restructuring of the fee. He fears not doing so would eliminate all taxpayer refunds for several years.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who serves as president pro tempore, told the Herald this week that she remains opposed to the measure.
If Senate leadership assigns the bill to a committee that would allow it to advance to the full Senate for debate, there is a strong chance that the legislation would make it to the governor’s desk. The plan is heavily supported and was spearheaded by the governor’s office.
Speaker Hullinghorst said she is optimistic that the tone of the conversation is changing and becoming less partisan.
“I welcome their participation and have from the very beginning,” Hullinghorst said. “I hope they have some good things to add to it. We’re ready to get this thing done for the people of the state of Colorado.”