*Update: the Senate voted 30-5 Thursday morning to approve the 2017-18 state budget. Four Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, voted no.
A fight over restricting the revenue coming in from the Hospital Provider Fee (HPF), whether asking kids about suicidal thoughts makes them have suicidal thoughts, and Live! From Hollywood! dominated much of the debate Wednesday night over the state’s proposed 2017-18 budget.
The state Senate put in a marathon session of almost 10 hours that went on until after 11 p.m. Wednesday night. In the end, the Senate gave preliminary approval to the budget bill and a half-dozen accompanying measures. When the state budget reaches the House, many, if not all, of those amendments will likely be stripped off and the process will start over again.
The six members of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) spend about four months every year writing the state budget, beginning in November. Three members are from the House, and three from the Senate. And with split control of the General Assembly, with Republicans in charge of the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, control of the JBC is also split 3-3. That meant a lot of things on the wish lists of lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper, who gave the JBC his budget proposal in November, didn’t make it to the final round, lacking that required fourth vote.
But that didn’t stop senators from trying to get some of those things into the budget through more than 40 amendments proposed Wednesday.
That included a $745,000 funding request to conduct the Healthy Kids Survey, a request that didn’t make it into the budget on a tie 3-3 JBC vote. Democrats picked off a couple of Republican votes to get that request back into the budget, over the strong objections of Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, one of the Capitol’s most conservative members, who is serving his first year on the budget committee.
The survey is randomly and anonymously administered to middle and high school students to ask about drug use, suicide, sexual behavior and other health issues. The survey runs every two years and is conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, an agency that has been the subject of Lundberg’s ire for the past two years. That same agency refused to investigate Planned Parenthood in 2015 after videos, which were later discredited, allegedly showed Planned Parenthood officials in discussions about selling body parts from aborted fetuses.
Lundberg, one of the three votes that kept the survey out of the state budget, read off some of the survey’s questions on suicidal thoughts that’s given to middle school students. “I am outraged that we think it’s appropriate to put [these questions] in front of every child in Colorado. I don’t call this ‘healthy kids,’” Lundberg said. “I call this [the] ‘corrupting healthy kids survey.’ That needs to change.” At the high school level, he said, the questions get more specific, such as asking if a teenager has ever attempted suicide. Questions about sexual activity carry a presumption that the teen is engaging in sexual activity, he claimed. “It’s not appropriate…to drag every child down to the lowest common denominator,” he said.
But several Republicans said they believed the the survey was appropriate, particularly in helping identify suicidal behavior. “Have you ever known of a child who committed suicide?” asked Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose. ”I have. Do I wish that I or someone like me had recognized those signs? Damn right I do. Maybe [the survey] is a little intrusive. But if we can save the life of one child,” it’s worth it.
Democratic Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge added that Colorado has the highest rate of juvenile suicide in the country, as well as high rates of death from substance abuse among young people. “I wish to God these kids never had to think about this. But we need to stay on top of it.”
Equally as intense was the debate over another bill in the budget package: to restrict the revenue coming in from hospitals for the HPF program by $264 million. The fee, a bookkeeping maneuver, brings in about $700 million per year, is matched with federal dollars and then redistributed to hospitals to pay for health care for low-income patients.
For the past two years, that revenue has pushed the state over its Tabor-imposed revenue limits and this year, Hickenlooper initially proposed restricting it by $195 million to avoid exceeding the limit, which triggers taxpayer refunds. The restriction grew to $264 million after a recent revenue forecast showed the state budget, which had a $500 million hole, had another $196 million to cover. But that $264 million translates into a cut to hospitals of $528 million, and at least two rural hospitals may have to close if the cut goes through without a fix.
JBC Chair and Republican Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs pleaded with senators to pass the bill during debate, pointing out that if they don’t pass it, the cuts will have to come from somewhere else – like K-12 or higher education or transportation. “This bill is critical,” he said. “It’s only the first step,” a reference to a bill scheduled for a Monday hearing that would reclassify the HPF and which would restore the $264 million.
“There has to be a better way,” argued Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora, who was joined in that argument by fellow Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver, a physician. Aguilar pointed out that the $264 million restriction would hit Denver Health the hardest, with a cut of more than $40 million.
The Senate’s approval of the measure, on a later 19-16 vote, sets up a likely showdown on Tuesday* over the provider fee. That showdown puts pressure on the Senate Finance Committee’s three Republicans to approve the bill or risk taking the heat for closing hospitals and severely restricting the operations of many others, particularly in rural areas.
Among other amendments considered last night that didn’t make it: an amendment to set up a “helpline” within the Department of Public Health and Environment that would advise doctors on how to work with Amendment 69, the aid in dying measure approved by voters last November. Funding for that helpline also died on a 3-3 vote in the JBC. Lundberg, who said he is opposed to doctor-assisted suicides, said the helpline was not in the amendment. “It’s one thing for someone to go to a doctor and seek this assistance,” he said. “It’s another for us to tell a doctor how to do it.”
Sen. John Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat, was successful in moving $16 million from marijuana tax revenues into affordable housing assistance.
There were even a few amendments directed at the Trump White House, to put additional funding into Meals on Wheels (it failed) and to pay for research at the Boulder-based University Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden (both failed).
Finally, there were no hoorays for Hollywood, as bipartisan efforts to restore a $3 million tax incentive in the state’s film program failed to gain enough votes. Senators in support, including Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City, said the film incentives bring in jobs to the state’s economy, But JBC members, including Lundberg, pointed out that only one movie has been made in the past two years, The Hateful Eight, and that those tax incentives go just to wealthy Hollywood producers.
*Correction: the Senate Finance Committee meets Tuesday on the hospital provider fee bill. An earlier version incorrectly stated the hearing is on Monday.
Photo credit: Mike Poresky, via Creative Commons license, Flickr