Budget reform bill to pass out of Senate; supporters rally

(Photo/Eric J. Lubbers, Flickr)
(Photo/Eric J. Lubbers, Flickr)
After more than a week of delays and backstage negotiation, today may be the day controversial Colorado budget reform bill SB 228 passes out of the Senate and makes its way to the House. If the last few weeks are any guide, the bill will likely spark legislative fireworks on both sides of the aisle.

Depending on the Senate schedule, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and a growing list of supporters are planning a noon rally at the Capitol either to send the bill off to the House with a bang or to bolster support for its passing in the Senate. Outspoken Republican Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, is SB 228’s House sponsor and plans to attend the rally with Morse today.

Passing the bill out of the Senate will be the latest success for Morse’s surprisingly resilient bill. SB 228 has inspired passionate support and opposition since it was introduced in February. Based on a new legal interpretation written by former state Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky, the bill made it through a packed Senate committee hearing and then emerged victorious from a historic GOP filibuster in the chamber. With each hurdle cleared, SB 228 has gained increased momentum.

The budget reform measure has gained speed recently, for example, when opponents admitted that the state’s current budget formulas need fixing and also from the increasing perception among the public — perplexed by Republican responses to the Obama stimulus package — that the free-market anti-government philosophy of the right is ill-suited to deal with the present economic crisis.

In negotiations with Morse last week, Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, an early vocal critic of SB 228, proposed simply overriding the Arveschoug-Bird provision Morse’s bill seeks to repeal. Penry suggested that instead of repealing Arveschoug-Bird, lawmakers could agree to override it for a number of years in order to resupply the dwindling general fund. Viewed as a half-measure, Penry’s proposal apparently made no headway with Morse nor any of the mounting numbers of supporters he is calling out today for the rally.

Likewise, the 10-hour filibuster that met the bill on second reading in the Senate two weeks ago was meant to demonstrate the seriousness of GOP opposition but turned instead into a satire of “silly season” partisan-deadlock government. Members of the Republican caucus accused Democrats of manipulating chamber rules, and, in a strange turn, GOP members ended up making a marathon case for big-government-style earmark spending on pet projects, including an endless list of bridges and roads and community college buildings, which they claimed would go unfunded should Morse’s bill pass.

“Yeah … the GOP relationship to transportation [that night], I think it was pretty apparent it was not a committed relationship,” said Scott Downes, communications director for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute. “The week before the filibuster, the same group voted against FASTER,” he said, referring to the state’s expanded transportation funding bill.

“[Republican Sen. Greg] Brophy was saying [SB 228] jeopardizes any hope of fully funding roads,” said Downes. “But what does that mean? Does he want to spend the $2 billion that transportation asks for each year to the exclusion of everything else?”

That’s probably not what Brophy wants, but he was not alone among the Republicans unsteadily stepping through the framework they had established to oppose Morse’s bill.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, at one point during the filibuster referred to the “other programs” that he said would take funding away from the “vital transportation projects” he was pushing. At the speaker’s podium, Mitchell at one point seemed ready to clarify and expand on his arguments, saying he was opposed to funding the “other programs, like …” but then left off before actually listing those programs.

In Mitchell’s hometown and in cities and voting districts throughout the state, the “other programs” Mitchell and his colleagues keep referring to include all variety of health care, education, child care, special education and environmental sustainability programs, as well as public safety, economic development, business services, veterans’ job training, clean energy programs and more.

Mitchell knows that even hard-core conservatives want to see veterans trained for jobs, for instance, and businesses developed in their communities. Mitchell knows that it’s state tax revenues that fund those programs in thousands of ways, directly and indirectly.

In Mitchell’s hometown of Broomfield, local Economic Development Corporation CEO Don Dunshee said that his office has been getting calls from all over the country, from businesses looking to participate in Colorado’s clean-energy industry, which has been celebrated by President Obama as a prime target for the federal stimulus funding to be channeled through the state.

Dunshee said he is proud of the fact that his office is funded privately, but he acknowledges that some state tax revenues help his work.

“Oh yeah, we’ve probably got six bids out from local businesses for state funding to send workers to our local Front Range Community College for job training. That’s the kind of thing the state pays for, of course,” he said.

Downes said that Republicans opposing SB 228 have made a tactical error, explaining that political posturing has resulted in a bad-faith argument that people can see through.

“A lot of what the opposition is saying is pure fiction. TABOR is the cap on spending and SB 228 does nothing to erode TABOR. … SB 228 doesn’t raise taxes at all.

“And this choice [the Republicans] have set up in opposing this bill, pavement versus people,” said Downes. “It’s a false choice.” Under SB 228, he said, “lawmakers will choose how much to spend on roads and how much to spend on hospitals and high schools. It’s not one or the other.

“People are going to be needing more help than ever. The human costs of the present budget allocation is what you have to look at, and the present law automatically shifts millions away from fundamental programs and services while also shrinking the budget every year, even while we need those services to move people and the state toward increased viability.

“SB 228 has gone further than we anticipated,” he said. “Maybe it’s snowballing and will gain even more support in the House.”

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