Partisan power mongering sets the tone in the State House

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty speaking on the steps of the Capitol. (Kersgaard)

After Democrats were gaveled down earlier this week over amendments to Joint House Resolution 1007 calling for state expectations of revenue to be lowered by an additional 2.75 percent, Senate leadership asked Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, what programs he would suggest cutting to reach a 2.75 percent reduction in spending for the next fiscal year.

“Effectively, you have suggested additional cuts to state services amounting to $194.1 million dollars. We cannot cut vital services to the people of Colorado without evaluating the impact of those cuts and we can’t do that without knowing specifically what you are proposing to cut,” Senate Majority Leader John Morse wrote in a letter to McNulty. “I understand that you want to be conservative in your estimate, but I doubt you want to do so to the point of imprudence. In my view, it is wrong to suggest that the Joint Budget Committee will have to decide on these additional cuts.”

Morse argued that further reducing revenue expectations below that provided by the non-partisan Legislative Council’s estimates, already estimated at a $1.1 billion dollar budget gap, required guidance from those who wanted to make those additional cuts.

“So plainly Mr. Speaker, what are your suggested cuts that amount to this $194.1 million that justifies discarding the trusted forecast generated by our non-partisan Legislative Council?” Morse wrote.

The message follows a week of contentious happenings in the House that have spurred protests from House Democrats.

On Tuesday, Republicans in the House called an early morning session of the House Finance committee in which they pushed through an amendment to the House Joint Resolution 1007, a bill which provides largely symbolic guidance for the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) in its budgeting decisions.

The amendment says the JBC should reduce the Legislative Council’s state revenue estimate by 2.75 percent. Given that there is no excess revenue, such a cut would direct the JBC to cut further state programs.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, noted that the bill would have no real effect on the budgeting process and said it was little more than a wish list. He said the real budget predictions that are used come from the Legislative Council report in March. He later called for even deeper cuts, presumably to prove his point.

Still, House Democrats roundly opposed the Republican move. It was not until after the committee report was accepted by the committee of a whole, though, that sparks began to fly.

Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, asked that any revenue coming in above the new threshold be appropriated to K-12 education. McNulty’s response shocked some Democrats.

“Thank you Rep. Kerr, L002 is not in order and will be removed from the screen.” McNulty said. “HJR deals with setting the revenue estimate and doesn’t deal with appropriation issues.”

The gavel fell and kept on falling.

Democrats said McNulty’s response breached the standard decorum that allows minority leadership to attend a short conference with majority members as it is decided whether an amendment should fall under a the title of a bill.

“As minority leader Mike May used to say, we may not get our way but we get our say,” Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, said after McNulty shot down Kerr’s amendment. “I think it is a real shame that when dealing with a resolution on how we are going to balance our budget that we can’t run an amendment about our priorities when we are talking about balancing that budget. And I think it is pretty clear that that amendment fell underneath the title of this bill.”

Again McNulty struck the gavel.

“Representative Pace you are out of order, the speaker has ruled,” McNulty said.

After McNulty again ruled against an amendment that would have removed veterans programs from the effects of the additional cuts, Pace provided an exasperated plea.

“With all due respect, I would like to remind you — remind this chamber — that there is a 33-32 margin. There is no clear mandate for one party not to allow one party not to speak,” Pace said, before again being gaveled down.

McNulty continued to gavel Democrats on Tuesday, eventually turning the microphone off on one. It seems likely that those gavels are now being heard in the Senate and in the public response of the Senate majority leader.

The Senate would have to approve the 2.75 percent reduction before its numbers would be used to guide the JBC.

Full transcript of Senator John Morse’s letter below:

Dear Speaker McNulty,

I just wanted to take a minute to recognize your efforts on the Revenue Resolution and outline where I stand. The top priority of Democrats in the legislature is to balance the state’s budget in a responsible way in the face of an unprecedented $1.1 billion shortfall. We vow to do everything possible to provide the best education for our children to prepare them for the jobs of the future and to continue to support growing parts of the economy, like alternative energy and biotech, and to support our small businesses so they can create new jobs to turn around the state’s economy.

Historically, this resolution has been our mechanism to choose whether we will rely on the economic forecast from the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, or the one provided by Legislative Council as our estimate of general fund revenues for the upcoming budget year. This is an important planning document as it provides guidance to the Joint Budget Committee as they continue their work on next year’s budget. As you know, Legislative Council is staffed with non-partisan, highly respected economists that work very hard to present a balanced forecast; one that is not slanted toward one agenda or another.

I agree with you that during these difficult economic times it make sense to choose the more conservative of the forecasts for planning purposes, and in this case that is the one prepared by Legislative Council. What I don’t understand is the goal of taking that reasoned, thoughtful, analytic forecast and reducing it by an arbitrary amount. It is in the interest of understanding this part of your approach that I write you this letter.

Effectively, you have suggested additional cuts to state services amounting to $194.1 million dollars. We cannot cut vital services to the people of Colorado without evaluating the impact of those cuts and we can’t do that without knowing specifically what you are proposing to cut. I understand that you want to be conservative in your estimate, but I doubt you want to do so to the point of imprudence. In my view, it is wrong to suggest that the Joint Budget Committee will have to decide on these additional cuts. This resolution is our guidance as a body to them, and they already face the horrific task of finding a balanced approach to closing a $1.1 billion shortfall. We should not ask them to do more without giving them specific direction.

So plainly Mr. Speaker, what are your suggested cuts that amount to this $194.1 million that justifies discarding the trusted forecast generated by our non-partisan Legislative Council?

I look forward to the favor of your reply. I am as always,

Sincerely yours,
John P. Morse
Majority Leader
Colorado State Senate

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