Hospital provider fee negotiations are in the works — or are they?

Pulkit Sinha

Legal wrangling over the constitutionality of reclassifying a billion-dollar hospital program to free up money in Colorado’s budget might be over, but the political wrangling is not.

At issue is whether Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and his allies in the legislature will be able to turn the state’s hospital provider fee into a standalone enterprise, thus keeping hundreds of millions of dollars the program brings in from being calculated against Colorado’s revenue caps and triggering taxpayer refunds under the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment.

Related: Colorado’s hospital provider fee explained

On Monday, Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst held a news conference to discuss the state of play at the midpoint of this year’s legislative session. She said she’d been in talks with leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate as she prepares a bill to reclassify the hospital provider fee.

“Negotiations have never been cut off completely, and we’re still talking,” she said. “And we will continue to talk, and I am looking forward to the Republicans trying to come up with something here that will bring us together because otherwise I think the budget will be just a complete disaster.”

But the content of those negotiations isn’t clear, and the Speaker’s Republican counterpart didn’t exactly seem to agree on how smoothly they are going.

Republicans in the House and Senate, including House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso and Senate Majority Leader Bill Cadman, have brushed off Democratic warnings of a budget crunch as alarmist. They’ve indicated they believe they can more efficiently spend money the state already has than trying to free up more for the budget by reclassifying the hospital program.

Democrats control the House in Colorado by three seats, and Republicans control the Senate by one.

Backing the governor and Democrats in the General Assembly on the hospital change plan is a near monolithic voice of the business community, including chambers of commerce and industry groups from around the state. The conservative grassroots group Americans for Prosperity is against it and has asked lawmakers to sign a pledge to protect TABOR and keep the hospital program as it is.

“I really believe that the leadership in the Senate wants to try do the right thing, and so I’m not going to give up on that and I’m not going to accuse them of kowtowing to the Americans for [Prosperity] or anything like that,” Hullinghorst said. “I think it’s something bigger than that and I think we’re going to address that.”

Timing is increasingly becoming an issue. Last session, a bill to reclassify the fee died after it was released late in the session.

Currently, House and Senate lawmakers on the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee are hashing out the state budget, which must be balanced by state law, and they could finish up their work by the end of the month.

Hullinghorst said Monday she would need a bill dealing with the hospital provider fee before then.

“Certainly we can’t pass it after the budget is adopted, but certainly we can look at it and see what it will do to help the situation as that budget is being finally introduced and talked about,” she said.

Asked what the conversations have been like with Senate leaders who have stood in the breach on the reclassification issue since the start of the session in January, the House Speaker said they’ve been talking about how she might draft her bill.

“There are potential compromises,” she said. “One, on how the bill is defined, but where the money will go, which is pretty important. That’s certainly a point of compromise. Whether there will be a refund or not. I think we’re open to talking about partial refunds or however that would work. So there are a number of issues that in my opinion we’ve discussed sort of and we need to talk more about, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Telegraphing the high-profile nature of the issue this year in Colorado, GOP Senate President Cadman said he had a pool going for which reporter would broach the subject first during his own Monday news conference later in the day.

“You lost,” Cadman told Durango Herald reporter Peter Marcus about eight minutes into the discussion when the reporter asked about the hospital provider fee.

Cadman said the only thing he would commit to is his willingness to keep speaking with Democrats about the plan.

“The reality is on so many other levels, until we see some— I think— some willingness to acknowledge and at least address some funding reforms, it would be impossible to overcome the hurdle of that,” he said.

But the Senate president also hinted at the substance level of any behind-the-scenes negotiating process with Democrats when he suggested he’d heard more from reporters than from the House Speaker about the specifics on which she is willing to negotiate.

“I think it speaks highly of the process,” Cadman said.

[Photo credit: Pulkit Sinha via Creative Commons on Flickr]