Budget long bill still in dispute–process shrouded in secrecy

The long bill, scheduled to drop over a week ago and again expected to hit the floor of the Senate Monday, is still hung up in the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) where Senate Democrats say House Republicans have been unwilling to budge on tax breaks including the agricultural exemption and fees paid to vendors for providing taxes to the state government. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said the Senate has a separate bipartisan budget ready in case talks break down.

Shaffer said a bipartisan Senate budget would see cuts to education considerably reduced, a feature he said is also part of the long bill being debated by the JBC. He said that one of the frustrations so far, however, has been the changing nature of House budget demands.

“Part of the frustration that we have had through the negotiations is that we don’t know exactly what the finishing line is,” Shaffer said.

However, Shaffer said he would not drop the Senate budget unless he had to.

“We are hoping that the JBC comes to a compromise, and that is what I have said all along is my desire,” Shaffer said. “So long as the JBC continues to make progress we will give them the time they need.”

Talks between Republican and Democratic members of the JBC have been going on behind closed doors now for over a week with the group meeting in unscheduled private rooms around the Capitol and yesterday in the Governor’s budgeting room. The unusual process has been anything but open and transparent.

Shaffer agreed that the process has been irregular and agreed it was a process that should have some sunlight. He said that one of the purposes of the alternative Senate bill would be to bring the debate back into the public eye.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, however, said he “did not know that it is different this year.” However, he said House Republican demands were complicating the process.

“House Republicans said at the beginning of the session that we weren’t going to kick the can down the road one more time,” McNulty said. “I think that has complicated maters with the way the budget has always been done down here, but from my perspective that is a good thing.”

Shaffer said that it was fair to say there was no lingering disputes between Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats over issues in the long bill and that the core of the budget had been resolved. However, it was now smaller budgeting matters that were providing the hangup between the two chambers.

“The discussion right now seems to be with some of these other balancing bills the Joint Budget Committee has decided needed to be introduced to balance [the budget],” Shaffer said. “These are things like the vendor fee and the state education fund and the balances on that.”

McNulty agreed that 99 percent of the budget was finalized but said Republicans were looking for a budget that created a more positive environment for businesses in Colorado.

“We want to make sure that the budget that is passed is an honest budget, is a responsible budget and helps move Colorado’s budget forward,” House Speaker McNulty said. “We have no interest in playing employers off state spending; we have no interest in drawing lines in the sand. What we want is a budget that works, a budget that provides for those Coloradans most in need, and a budget that moves Colorado’s economy forward.”

McNulty said that despite the rhetoric that House Republicans have not provided any concessions in the budget debates, Republicans have been willing to concede reductions in the cuts to education.

However, according to McNulty, a responsible budget means that the Legislature is not relying on one-time funds or using fee-based cash funds. He said points such as a 4 percent budget reserve, proposed initially by Gov. John Hickenlooper, remains in the bill with a number of other tax exemptions cut by Democrats last year on the negotiating table.

Shaffer said that because the budget has taken as long as it has to drop he was keeping the desk open Monday night to introduce the Senate budget, but he said he had hopes that the JBC would work out a compromise.

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