Morse’s ‘6 percent solution’ budget bill clears first hurdle

State Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)
State Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)
On Wednesday, the Colorado Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 228 — legislation that seeks to provide greater flexibility to lawmakers in deciding where to spend the state’s shrinking revenues.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. John Morse, the bill would eliminate the so-called Arveschoug-Bird provision, which restricts the state’s General Fund to 6 percent growth per year and allocates any surplus specifically to transportation and construction projects. Morse’s bill and the problem it seeks to address are tongue-twisting and arcane, yet the small corner room of the Capitol where the hearing took place was filled with laptop jockeys, community leaders, a webcast crew and a buzz that hung in the air when it became clear that SB228 was going to clear its first public hurdle.

In Colorado, a bill like this, which addresses the famously restricted state budget, was sure to draw fire. But Senate Bill 228 has already become something of a larger political test case.

In the back-and-forth that followed last week’s press conference introducing it, and in the charged exchanges that characterized today’s committee hearing, there was a feeling that the rigid political framework that has pitted small-government conservatives against tax-and-spend liberals for decades may at last be shifting, despite the best efforts of the Republican members of the committee yesterday.

“The repeal [of Arveshoug-Bird] will not cost or save taxpayers a dime. It simply puts the responsibility on us to decide where the money goes,” said Morse in response to one of a long line of questions that argued 228 would effectively raise taxes.

Morse, though, with his poster-board chart and carefully constructed sample scenarios, would not be knocked off course. He persuasively presented 228 as a “common sense” solution to a thorny bureaucratic problem. That has been his tack from the beginning. He says 228 is about “taking responsibility for governing” and not about taxing or spending or any other similarly toxic political cliche. And his consistent deadpan “just the facts” delivery yesterday made the bill’s detractors seem vague and therefore ideologically driven by comparison.

In particular, ranking minority member Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and fellow conservative Greg Brophy, R-Wray, seemed grasping and increasingly frustrated with Morse’s “new-style” political debate. In the middle of one of several admitted rambling non-questions, King all but pointed his finger in the air as he railed that proponents of the bill would have us first “throw out the constitution” and “throw out the bill of rights [too].”

“This has always been interpreted as a limit on spending,” he said, “and I just find it funny that we can come in here today and wordsmith it into something else.”

Brophy was less expansive. Most of what he seemed to know of the bill was that he was supposed to oppose it. In fact he seemed to be catching up as the hearing progressed, spurring chuckles on occasion from the gallery.

“You said it wasn’t a limit on spending,” he said to Morse, reading from his laptop. “You called it an … allocation … wha?”

“An allocation strategy,” Morse said.

“An allocation … ?”

Chuckles among the audience.

Later Brophy seemed to turn into a strawman for Morse, setting up lines for him.

“So what will happen to transportation funding in 2011 if we eliminate Arveschoug-Bird?” He seemed genuinely confused.

“Whatever the the General Assembly decides,” said Morse, “as it should be in a democratic republic.”

When Brophy oddly asked how much Morse would have allocated to transportation over the last decade if it had been up to him, Morse took the opportunity to make perhaps his only straight reference to a traditional political touchstone, the free market.

“There’s no answer to how much I would have spent. By 2000-2001 we were already close to 50th among the states in spending, and that includes on roads. The free market in those years didn’t decide to spend on roads. Taxpayers … didn’t think they should use it to fund roads. They thought that was a public responsibility.”

Clearly frustrated, Brophy then claimed 228 would put an end to fiscal responsibility in Colorado, that it would “put us in the same place as California … $42 billion upside down from where they wanna be …”

The committee Republicans were joined by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, who has clearly decided 228 will be a signature issue for him and who had come prepared to argue against it. He said that TABOR, the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, directly stated no limits on spending could be lifted except by a vote of the people. The “other limits” mentioned in TABOR surely refer to this Arveshoug-Bird provision, he said.

Morse, however, with the backing of a powerhouse legal team that includes former state Supreme Court justice Jean Dubofsky, reiterated that Arveschoug-Bird is not a spending limit and that a recent Supreme Court ruling provides precedent to that effect.

“Arveschoug-Bird is a formula that dictates how we are to spend the state revenue,” Morse said, “but times change, and so do priorities.”

Mitchell, returning time and again to TABOR’s “other limits,” began to sound more like a man lost in 1960s science-fiction televisionland than a lawmaker with a point to make. Should he lose in the Legislature as he lost today in committee, it seems clear Mitchell will return to the matter through the ballot initiative process, where an amendment to repeal Morse’s bill that repeals the Arveschoug-Bird provision would no doubt be pitched to voters as a check on wasteful government.

But one of the community leaders who offered testimony in support of the bill, Marijo Rymer, a spokesman for Arc of Colorado, an advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities, refused to let Mitchell corner the market on the will of “the people.”

“When I go into the booth to cast my vote, when I decide who I will support as a representative, I’m consciously throwing the monkey on [their] back to take the responsibility to decide what programs to fund,” Rymer said.

“Voters can spend two hours with an initiative before deciding how to vote. But we are here to drill down into these laws … It is our job to make the hard but necessary choices,” said Morse. What else are we elected to do? he kept asking the committee in different ways.