Governor signs omnibus rural Colorado bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper this morning signed into law a bill that is expected to help save up to a dozen rural hospitals and provide much-needed dollars for rural schools and roads.

But the signing ceremony was skipped by the bill’s Republican sponsors, who say the governor ignored their suggestions for the ceremony, instead holding it hundreds of miles away from their districts.

The measure, which reclassifies the state’s hospital provider fee program, was signed in a morning event at Fowler High School, about a half-hour east of Pueblo along Highway 50.

The provider fee program requires hospitals to pay a fee, based on the number of overnight patient stays and outpatient visits. That money is pooled, matched with federal dollars and then redistributed to the hospitals to cover health care for low-income Coloradans, either for Medicaid or for unreimbursed patient visits. The program brings in about $1 billion per year, which has pushed the state over its revenue limits twice in the last two years.

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The program became the bank of last resort for Hickenlooper when he submitted his 2017-18 budget last November, seeking to cover a half-billion dollar shortfall in the budget. Eventually, the General Assembly came up with a reduction in the program’s revenue of $264 million, and when the federal match is included, turned into a cut to hospitals of around $528 million.

The Colorado Hospital Association pointed out that a cut of this magnitude could result in the closure of up to a dozen rural hospitals and millions of dollars in cuts to urban ones that could lead to fewer services and staff for programs that serve low-income patients.

Reclassifying the fee would take it out from under the state revenue limit established by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and reverses that half-billion dollar cut. The measure also includes revisions to Medicaid copays, and a tax break under the state’s business personal property tax program.

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The new law puts just under $1.9 billion into roads, with 25 percent going to rural counties with populations of 50,000 or less; another $30 million from the bill will go to rural schools with enrollments of 6,500 or less.

The bill was a major bipartisan effort, sponsored in the Senate by Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat; and Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. In the House, Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder moved the bill to the finish line. In addition to its bipartisan sponsorship, the bill also earned “yes” votes from 20 Republicans – a dozen from the House’s 27 Republican members and eight out of the 18 Republicans in the Senate – in addition to unanimous support from Democrats in both chambers.

“I want to thank my fellow sponsors, Senator Sonnenberg, Majority Leader K.C. Becker, and Representative Jon Becker, for putting Colorado first, and party second, as we worked to finish this bill” Guzman said in a statement Tuesday. “With SB267, we have not only protected rural hospitals, but have also provided funding opportunities for rural schools and transportation as well…It is my hope the bipartisanship we displayed will carry over in future sessions, and that Democrats and Republicans will continue to come together to collaborate on solutions that benefit all of Colorado.”

Despite the bipartisan tone, Tuesday’s ceremony was notably absent three of the bill’s four sponsors. Rep. KC Becker was the only one of the sponsors in attendance, along with Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, the first Republican to publicly support reclassifying the provider fee, and in whose district Fowler is located. In a statement, KC Becker later said that “It took a lot of work to get to where we are today, but it was time well spent because all Coloradans will benefit. It will literally save lives by preventing dangerous cuts in health care services. It will also allow us to tackle some of our most badly needed transportation projects and help seniors and small businesses.”

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Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo was also present for the signing, as was Steven Summer, president of the Colorado Hospital Association, along with representatives from area hospitals.

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Guzman was absent due to jury duty. Also missing: the bill’s Republican sponsors, Sonnenberg and Jon Becker.

All that bipartisanship was forgotten, Jon Becker said, when the signing ceremony was put together. Becker, who was furious about the ceremony’s location, told The Colorado Independent that the bill was first and foremost intended to benefit the rural hospitals that faced closure under the half billion-dollar cut, and that a signing ceremony in northeastern Colorado, at one of several area rural hospitals, was suggested.

But Hickenlooper never communicated with the bill’s sponsors until last Friday, Becker said, announcing he would sign the bill in Fowler, some 200 miles from Sterling, where Sonnenberg lives, and 175 miles from Fort Morgan, where Becker lives.

“This was a bill for the hospitals. They are the ones who helped get the bill passed, stuck by us when it go rocky and they kept the bipartisan feel,” Becker explained.

Sonnenberg told The Independent that the governor can sign bills where he wants, “regardless of the convenience or inconvenience of the sponsors who actually carried the legislation.” He said he had prior commitments in Sterling later in the day and could not make it to Fowler and back in time to meet those commitments. “If it would have been at the hospital in Hugo or someplace only a couple of hours away, that might have worked,” Sonnenberg said.

Both Sonnenberg and Jon Becker have said this bill was the biggest of their legislative careers. It’s also earned both threats of 2018 primary challenges.

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“I am so disappointed in this governor and I refuse to work with him again….He made it ugly at the end,” Becker said.

A spokesperson for the governor said that he did not intend to slight the bill’s sponsors.

Photo courtesy of office of Gov. John Hickenlooper

Left to right: Rep. Don Valdez, D-LaJara; *Steve Grasmick, superintendent of the Fowler School District; Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa; Sue Birch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing; Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City; House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder; Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo; behind her, Don Brown, commissioner of agriculture; Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and Michael Lewis, deputy executive director, Colorado Department of Transportation

Not shown: Steven Summer, president of the Colorado Hospital Association

Correction: photo ID of Steve Grasmick corrected


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