Joint Budget Committee compromises, introduces budget

The long bill budget plan was introduced Tuesday after the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), under the pressure of a looming Senate budget plan, came to a compromise. Democrats said while they gave up considerable concessions, they gained close to $100 million for schools and removed of an amendment that would have required teachers and local government employees to contribute more to their retirement plans.

After a week of deadlocked negotiations, concessions were made on both sides of the aisle Tuesday, as Democratic members of the JBC told the press after the meeting that securing a reduction in cuts to education was their main priority. They said finding a way to reduce cuts from $332 million to $250 million was their largest success, but other concession will help medicaid patients and public employees.

One of those ancillary concessions was an amendment that many teacher and government employee advocacy groups feared would strike another blow at government workers and teachers.

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, said that the negotiations will see an amendment by Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, that would give Colorado school districts and local governments the ability to increase employee contributions to PERA by 2.5 percent dropped.

“It was a big enough cut to our state employees that it would have hurt,” Hodge said.

For their part, Republican members of the JBC said that they got real concessions that would help the Colorado economy and bring back some jobs. All three Republicans pointed to the return of a vendor fee, which allows vendors to keep a portion of the taxes they collect to administer the collection of sales taxes. Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said it would help employers who have been suffering in wake of the recession.

While Tuesday represented a breakthrough in negotiations for Republicans and Democrats, the reality was time seemed to be running out for them to reach a consensus as both the legislative clock and Senate patience was dwindling. The Senate had said that if the talks, which were influenced far more by legislative members outside the JBC this year, broke down, a bipartisan Senate-sponsored budget would start a public debate about the future spending of the state. The move would have created a political circus far larger than most members wanted and is perhaps one of the reasons the bill never dropped.

Both Lambert and Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, told the Colorado Independent that that while the Senate proposal was part of the discussions they didn’t feel it had considerable affect on the negotiations.

“As far as it being a big pressure on us moving forward, I think that it was a conversation inside of the negotiation as we moved forward. I think it was respectful and I think we got to the point where everyone wanted to be on the JBC,” Becker said.

However, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said that the JBC was dangerously close to losing its relevancy as the negotiations at times appeared to be breaking down the day before.

“The path we were about to all embark on yesterday, at 3 and then at 4, would have been a path that undermined the institution of the Joint Budget Committee,” Steadman said. “I hope that we don’t ever have to venture down that path.”

Steadman said that though it has been a good thing that members of the General Assembly took a greater interest in the budget, the best decisions for Colorado had happened at the JBC table.

Lambert, who was also a member of the JBC last year, made news by voting against the budget plan last year. However, he said this year his vote would be aye.

“I think that some of things in the long bill the last couple of years have been objectionable. I didn’t agree.” Lambert said. “But I think this has made it a lot easier for me and many people in the Republican caucus who didn’t go for it in the past, to go forward on a bipartisan basis.”

The budget establishes a 4 percent rainy day fund, transfers $71 million in severance tax funds to balance the General Fund, reinstates the agriculture tax exemption a year early, and suspends the sales tax exemption on tobacco products, which is expected to create $31 million in revenue for the General Fund, and keeps a $100 million balance in the State education fund.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, said that the process this year allowed for voices that have not been heard for years when both houses were controlled by one party.

“The wonderful thing about this budget is the equal conversation,” Gerou said. “…there are people in Colorado that have felt silenced.”

If I was doing it myself, would I have come up with the same conclusions? Probably not.” Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said. “But that is why we have democracy and that is why we have compromise and give and take by all side.”

Ferrandino said that at the end of the day, the JBC came to a good agreement.

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