Well, it happened. Lawmakers in Denver finally introduced a bill that would reclassify the state’s hospital provider fee into a standalone enterprise. Doing so will keep the hundreds of millions of dollars raked in from the fee from counting against revenue caps that would trigger tax refunds under the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment.
What’s the big takeaway? That a Republican is a sponsor in the Senate, bucking both his party’s leadership and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity— on an issue that’s been framed since January as the biggest political battle of the year.
That a bill finally came out, sponsored in the House by Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, isn’t surprising. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has made the hospital provider fee plan a key strategy this session to free up more money in the state’s budget. He and other Democrats say doing so will be vital to providing services like transportation, infrastructure and higher education.
Crowder, the Republican sponsor and an Alamosa farmer, was the only Republican to buck his party in 2013 when he voted in favor of expanding Medicaid.
In the days leading up to today’s introduction of the bill, Crowder had been coy about whether he would vote to reclassify the hospital provider fee into an enterprise if he had the chance. While he’s been clear on some aspects — he believes, for instance, unlike other Republicans, that reclassifying the fee is constitutional — he said as recently as last week that he’d have to wait and see a bill before committing to how he’d vote.
Now his name is on the bill. And in his public comments on the legislation, he downplayed whether his sponsorship should come as a shock to anyone paying attention.
“I’ve made no secret of where I stand on this issue, so my sponsorship of this bill shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” Crowder said today in a statement. “Having my name on the bill helps ensure that I can advocate on behalf of my district while also giving me a stronger hand in how the bill is crafted as we move through the process. It’s a sign of Republican strength and character that we’re able to respectfully differ on such issues. I appreciate the willingness of my colleagues to understand the importance of this issue to hospitals in my district.”
Reached by phone, the senator said he was dealing with an important issue in his district and would comment more soon.
Republican leaders at the Colorado Statehouse have maintained a hard line against reclassifying the hospital provider fee into an enterprise because they look at it as a way to circumvent TABOR, don’t believe Colorado will face a budget crisis, and can more efficiently use the money state government already has to fund basic services.
Two weeks ago, House Speaker Hullinghorst said negotiations with Republicans were ongoing about a potential compromise on the hospital plan, but her counterpart, Republican Senate President Bill Cadman, indicated that might not be the case.
Crowder has been outspoken about what the hospital provider fee means to his rural, southeastern Colorado district that includes nine hospitals. He’s also spoken to local business groups on panels where he’s been on the pro-side of the debate over the re-classification plan while other GOP lawmakers have outlined their opposition to it.
This year is also an election year.
Speaking to a local chamber of commerce group in the Denver suburbs last month, he underscored that point.
“You’ve got to realize I’m up for re-election,” the mustachioed Crowder told the roughly 40 men and women in business suits seated around him. “Why should I be out there with myself exposing myself on an issue like this on re-election? Well, this issue is bigger than me. This is something that the future of healthcare in Colorado needs to look at and look at very hard.”
The comment earned him an online smack from the conservative Koch-brothers backed group Americans for Prosperity, which is lobbying against a change in the hospital provider fee program.
Crowder tweeted back.
You hoonyocks at AFP want to pick a fight with me? Then get after it
— Larry Crowder (@SenatorCrowder) February 19, 2016
This is the second year lawmakers have introduced a bill to reclassify the program in a divided legislature where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate. The bill, introduced in April last year, was killed by Republicans. Last year no Republicans were on the bill.
“Our economy is doing well and our unemployment rate is 3.2 percent, among the lowest in the country,” Speaker Hullinghorst said in a statement upon the introduction of the latest incarnation of the bill. “But because of a technical glitch, the budget being presented to us by the Joint Budget Committee looks as if we’re in a recession. The bill Senator Crowder and I are introducing today will fix this glitch, stabilize our budget and allow us to make investments that will keep our state strong.”
The bill, she added, would “free up as much as $600 million for new transportation projects through 2020.”
Democrats in the Senate last week held a news conference where they unveiled a clock counting down to the end of the session in May, and called on their Republican counterparts to bring the hospital provider fee bill out of a Republican-controlled committee and onto the floor for a vote. They indicated they had enough support for it, meaning they’d need at least one Republican to vote in favor if all of the Democrats did as well.
Asked what Crowder would do to try and get his bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, he said he isn’t in leadership and he’s never asked for special treatment when it comes to his bills in committees.
“Everybody realizes the consequences of this,” he said. “So ‘I’ll leave it up to the leadership, and I think they’ll do the right thing.”
[Photo credit: Colorado Senate GOP via Creative Commons in Flickr]