COLORADO SPRINGS — Lawmakers wrap up their work in Denver next week, but the largest battle waged during the legislative session remains in a stalemate.
That fight is over whether to re-classify a billion-dollar hospital program into a standalone enterprise (like a concession stand in a park or the state lottery) so the big money stream coming into it can be used for things like transportation, education and infrastructure instead of being restricted by revenue caps under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
The battle this session has been ideological. The governor, Democratic lawmakers, the business community, and a new bi-partisan coalition argue the state needs more money in the general fund for vital services. Reclassifying Colorado’s hospital provider fee could make that happen. Republicans say the state should better spend money it already has, and taking the fee out from under TABOR violates the spirit of the 1992 Constitutional TABOR amendment.
In 2009, then-Republican Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, urged the legislature to make the hospital provider fee a standalone enterprise. Now he’s indicating the Legislature should re-classify it while they have the chance.
“I don’t quite understand a lot of my fellow Republicans saying, ‘Oh, we have to preserve TABOR,’” Suthers told The Colorado Independent. “The easiest way to preserve TABOR, and not increase taxes, is to remove the provider fee from the calculation. But obviously there’s a group in the Senate that feels differently.”
That group, led by Republican Senate President Bill Cadman, is almost the entire Senate majority. One Republican bucking his party, Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, signed onto a bill to re-designate the program.
Currently, a bill to reclassify the hospital provider fee awaits review in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Cadman has not yet assigned it to a committee. The bill survived a furious challenge from Republicans in the Democratically controlled House last week, but it also picked up some GOP support there. Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Kit Roupe voted in favor of it, along with five others.
Suthers said the bill could make it to the governor’s desk before the end of session.
“It could get through the Senate pretty quickly if people were inclined to do it,” he said.
“I have said all along that it’s the easiest remedy without raising taxes to free up revenue for roads, and I have a serious desire to see the state invest more in transportation,” he said. “Two ways to do that: When you’ve got all these pots that are constricted because of the interplay of constitutional provisions, the only way you get more money for higher ed or transportation is either to raise taxes, find a new revenue stream, or in this case to take that money that’s in the hospital provider fee that’s under the TABOR cap, take it out from the TABOR cap, and to me that preserves TABOR.”