Budget reform bill weathers GOP filibuster, clears another hurdle

Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)
Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry (Photo/Bob Spencer/The Colorado Independent)

Senate Bill 228, Democratic Sen. John Morse’s controversial budget reform legislation, received key preliminary approval late last night after a 10-hour Republican filibuster that, for all its passion, never seriously threatened passage of the bill.

Senate members on both sides of the aisle agreed SB 228 was among the most important laws they would consider this year and would have ramifications on Colorado governance for years to come, amounting to a “sea change,” as state Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, described it, in the way tax revenues would be spent.

SB 228 seeks to repeal a 1992 budget provision called Arveschoug-Bird that requires any revenues collected by the state above a 6 percent annual increase to flow away from the state’s discretionary General Fund and into transportation and capital construction projects such as highway maintenance and construction at public university buildings.

Members of the Republican opposition view the bill as repealing an essential cap on spending, which they say the state’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment, protects through the constitution. They argued on the floor and in press releases issued throughout the day that SB 228 was an attack on the state constitution, a rebuke to the voters, and “highway robbery” that would shift funds from transportation projects to social programs.

Supporters of the bill, relying on a recent interpretation of the law written by former Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofky, argued that Arveschoug-Bird is not a cap but an allocation strategy and that SB 228 merely places transportation projects onto the same playing field with all of the other various state programs, including state employee benefits, public insurance policies, health and human services and primary and secondary education.

In fact, although repeal of Arveschoug-Bird might well cut into transportation and construction funding, it would “not increase the budget or cost taxpayers one dollar,” as SB 228 sponsor Morse put it and as budget analysts agree.

Indeed, fighting SB 228 has proven a thorny undertaking for the minority party. A technical response to the state’s famously constrained budget — a response that again calls for no increase in taxes — SB 228 has engendered dramatic and surprising arguments from its Republican opponents.

During Monday’s long filibuster at the state Capitol, for example, Republicans found themselves in a logical wilderness where they made their case for government spending limits by pleading with Democrats not to cut spending — “crucial spending,” they said time and again, of enormous sums for “very real projects,” projects in fact funded beyond the 6 percent spending limit they claimed has kept the state from sliding into California-style budgetary deficit chaos.

As a result of such arguments, the all-day Senate floor show was something like viewing cable news politics through a looking glass.

For hours, the Republican filibusterers listed pet transportation and construction projects they feared would go unfunded if SB 228 passed: Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, presented “28 strategic transportation projects,” including “poking a hole” through the Eisenhower tunnel; Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, had a seemingly endless list of “concrete slab” and “girder continuous” bridges; and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, argued for the I-70 corridor.

At one point Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, talked about the need to replace road signs in his district and then made the case that SB 228 was “about priorities and that we shouldn’t waste these tax dollars on social programs.”

Most surprising was Minority Leader Penry, who at one point found himself advocating in solemn tones for the fundamental role played by government in the lives of citizens and further that that role is tied directly to its ability to pay for essential services with tax revenues.

“Services such as education, K-12, health services, yes, but also roads … let’s not gut gas taxes.”

He begged Democrats to see reason and spare the cuts to transportation he said SB 228 was sure to make.

The conflicted heart of the Republican message — essentially, we’re against spending as a rule, but we’re desperately for our spending — made the partisan theater yesterday seem like exactly the sort of posturing recent polls say have turned off voters across the country.

Any real concern that repeal of Arveschoug-Bird would lead indirectly to increased spending — a complicated but principled position touched upon once or twice in the 12 hours of debate — was lost in the mostly simplistic and confused readings of road and bridge and community college funding requirements.

Indeed, of all the Republican orators, Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, sitting deep in his chair at the bottom of the minority corner, straight-faced behind his mustache and silent, was the most eloquent. White had put his name on an early draft of the bill but then withdrew it from the final version. Yesterday he offered none of the filibustering amendments and swirling arguments of his peers. He seemed comfortable with the inevitable outcome.

Morse’s House co-sponsor Don Marostica, R-Loveland, alternately sat and paced behind White, scribbling notes and occasionally laughing at the fireworks and stall tactics, no doubt preparing for more of the same when the bill travels out of the Senate in the coming weeks. As he told the Colorado Independent, his reason for supporting the bill was simple math. “[Arveschoug-Bird] just doesn’t work.”

The substantive portion of the debate happened early, and was led for the opposition by Sens. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and King, although their arguments seemed contradictory.

Mitchell, playing the arch courtroom attorney, attempted to underline the complexity of the questions under consideration and the need therefore to send the bill to the Judiciary Committee.

King agreed but took the opposite tack, adopting a folksy approach and playing at innocence. “I just don’t see why we can’t put the question to the people,” he said. “We have to include the voters in this important discussion,” as if voters were the obvious ones to untangle the questions that had muddled the Senate lawyers and their advisers.

Mitchell, who is clearly setting himself up as chief TABOR defender — a campaign-ready title for what’s shaping up to be the GOP obstructionist platform of the coming years — made arguments that hinged as previously on the vague phrase “other limits” put forth in TABOR. Arveschoug-Bird, he said, is a limit and limits on spending cannot be changed without the consent of the people.

Morse repeatedly asserted his own reading of the constitution, where Arveschoug-Bird is merely an allocation strategy. “And on that,” he said, “TABOR is silent.”

SB 228 supporters did not respond to King’s call to throw the bill to the people. King’s amendment, like all the amendments put forward yesterday, was defeated by a party-line vote.