Penry-Heath clash over cuts underlines intransigent national politics

Grand Junction Republican state Senator Josh Penry and Boulder Democratic Senator Rollie Heath faced off on the state budget during a committee hearing Wednesday, underlining national perceptions about the way members of the two major political parties in this country seem unable to work together.

In Colorado, the absurdity of the election-year clashing is exaggerated by the fact that both parties are promoting deep budget cuts to shore up a budget short billions due to the recession. Democrats in power have cut more government programs and spending than any majority party in the history of the state. Yet even so, Republicans have only shifted their complaints about spending to complaints about the nature of the cuts Democrats have undertaken, making the case that Republican-proposed cuts would be better cuts and in the process seeking to demonstrate that the minority party is also busy working for constituents in a time of need.

Josh Penry and Rollie Heath
Josh Penry and Rollie Heath

Penry was presenting his program-cutting bill, SB 168, to the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Heath had sponsored the Democratic economic package and seemed impatient with what he saw as Penry’s posturing. Penry’s bill died in committee, but not before the sparks flew.

Penry called for across-the-board cuts. His bill would require Gov. Bill Ritter to slash $17.8 million, or 0.27 percent of state personnel expenditures. It called for a further 4.39 percent cut to next year’s budget, once again targeting state personnel. The bill also would return sales tax on retail vendors to 3.3 percent.

“This one this is the same approach the governor took,” Penry said in outlining a proposal to begin cuts with nonessential programs. He then chastised the legislature for not making more cuts.

“The general assembly has not made the tough decisions… Instead of going down the road of more taxes, more fees, more gimmicks, we think it is time –and I think that every Republican has cosponsored this bill– we think it is time to actually begin doing the tough business of cutting spending.”

Heath suddenly had heard enough and took issue with Penry’s “flinging aspersions that we haven’t done anything.”

“I will let the facts speak for themselves.”

Heath said Democrats had cut $3.2 billion from the state budget. He explained that, as a past executive of a billion-dollar company, he did not believe in across-the-board cuts, which he suggested was a mere talking point and not a policy prescription.

“I don’t care who does it. It is not a good way to do anything.”

Heath said that with the required furlough days and the mandatory increase in PERA public employee retirement contributions, state workers will be subject to more than 6 percent cuts.

“You’re acting like we’ve done nothing. The fact of the matter is that we have cut the budget more than probably ever in the history of this state,” said Heath, adding that the cuts had come at a time when reliance on state job-training and unemployment and safety net programs had increased due to unemployment and a poor economy.

“To say that we haven’t done anything– to [propose] a 4.2 percent cut on top of what we have already done and without offering any specifics, I guess I would have expected more from you and your party.”

But it seemed clear the topic was not policy but politics.

Penry began talking about Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Penry said Hickenlooper had also criticized the across-the-board approach to budget spending but that the Democratic governor of Montana had recently made these kind of cuts.

What’s the point? Heath asked Penry, adding that the Republican legislature and Republican governor of Arizona had just raised taxes. Heath said he didn’t see the relevance in looking at the politics of other states.

But Penry seemed determined to point out that the minority party was doing more than merely nay-saying in a year wracked by historic budget shortfalls and public disgust with political gridlock.

“This is just one of many proposals Republicans have made to cut spending. I have a list of 22 spending reductions that were proposed in the long bill, only six or seven of which have been implemented. I have another bill, Senate Bill 29, that calls for narrower cuts. Senator Kopp has a bill that calls for a… commission to seek out efficiencies… The party in power becomes the Party of No when cuts are at hand,” Penry said.

Heath seemed baffled and frustrated. Where were any of these ideas during the many summer and fall off-session meetings of the Interim Commission on Fiscal Spending? he asked. 

Penry was not a member of the Commission and had been running for governor in the months it was meeting.

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