Budget reform bill sparks partisan fracas in Colorado Senate

Senate Majority Leader Brandon Schaffer, D-Longmont. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)
Senate Majority Leader Brandon Schaffer, D-Longmont. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)
Colorado Senate Republicans find themselves in the odd position today of arguing for extending dependency on tax money and maligning proposed increases in fees and tolls to pay for roads, a perhaps more obviously free-market solution.

Heated exchange preceded today’s debate on Colorado Senate Bill 228, which seeks to repeal the the so-called “6 percent solution,” the long-established and controversial cap on General Fund growth. The new bill would give lawmakers increased flexibility to decide how to allocate Colorado’s shrinking state budget.

Animated members of the Republican minority trolled the speaker’s podium this morning, taking turns calling out House Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont) on his decision to move debate on the bill to later in the day and for threatening to invoke procedural gag rule 9-C, which would limit discussion to five hours.

Sen. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) said that she hadn’t seen the use of the gag rule in her 11 years as a member of the state legislature.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) reiterated what many members of his caucus had been saying at the podium — that this is the most important legislation lawmakers will consider in this General Assembly and beyond.

“Why cram it into the dark of night?” he said. “We should be allowed to debate the constitutional questions involving this blow off of crucial spending limits… this [proposed delay in the debate] is a midnight charade.”

After nearly an hour of back and forth, Shaffer, clearly frustrated, blurted out from the floor that his motives were being maligned. After it was suggested again that he wanted to silence debate and put it off till the cover of darkness, Shaffer shouted, “Where’d that come from? … “I never proposed that!”

If nothing else, Shaffer’s proposed delay seemed like political tit for tat. Senate Republicans had pushed the debate from Friday to today to have the weekend to better prepare.

“We were ready to debate Friday, in the light of day, during business hours,” countered Shaffer.

Republicans are now proposing the bill be submitted to the Transportation Committee for review because the de facto effect of the bill would be to repeal laws that ensure transportation funding.

“But Republicans gutted that funding when they cut sales and income tax in 1999 and 2000,” said Sen. John Morse (D-Colorado Springs), sponsor of SB 228, his hoarse voice rising with emotion. “There was a public hearing before the Senate Finance Committee and no representatives of the Transportation Committee came,” he said.

Spence is one of three Republican members of the Transportation Committee.

“This money doesn’t come from transportation. It comes from the people. From taxpayers. It’s not your money. It’s the people of Colorado’s money, which we decide how to spend in every other area, except for transportation…,” Morse said. “No, gutting transportation happened a long time ago … You decided to turn off the spigot and now you say ‘You’re gutting transportation.’ Vote no to send this to Transportation Committee… This affects everyone. We’re all here. Let’s debate it.”

Listen to the ongoing debate here.

Supporters of SB 228 believe it is crucial to regain the ability to send funds where they are most desperately needed, namely to health and human services and education programs.

“This bill merely places transportation funding on the same playing field with other programs,” said Morse.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Ritter is scheduled to sign the FASTER bill today that raises $250 million from increased vehicle registration fees, which he contends will create thousands of jobs and pay to fix the state’s roads and bridges.

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