Colorado lawmakers who questioned governor Tuesday keep quiet Wednesday

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, is pictured here at the Capitol on March 21, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick for The Colorado Independent)

Gov. Jared Polis released his first draft budget this week, and some lawmakers were quick to question what was in it — and what wasn’t.

Why, they told reporters Tuesday, hadn’t the governor proposed more money to address the state’s $9 billion backlog of transportation projects?

And is it prudent, they asked, for Polis to try to fully fund the launch of his signature policy goal — statewide, state-funded, full-day kindergarten — given that economic forecasts might not be so rosy in future years? That initiative alone comes with a $253 million price tag, and that’s just for the 2019-2020 budget year.

“We recognize that it’s a priority and we want to try and help the governor get there,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger said Tuesday. “We just have to make sure that … we are positioned in order to continue that commitment beyond this year, and that’s a real question at this point.”

Today, they sang a different tune.

Polis visited with the Joint Budget Committee, and a crowd packed the room to watch as the new governor formally pitched his ambitious agenda to the legislature’s chief budget-writers in person.

Any observer anticipating a bit of conflict — or at least some discussion — would have been justified in that thinking, given the Democrats’ open skepticism a day earlier and the Republican minority’s warning against overreach by Polis on priorities such as paid parental leave for state employees.

Instead, Polis read from the budget letter he’d submitted the day before, which was more or less a rearticulation of his State of the State speech. His comments included some lengthy extolling of the merits of full-day kindergarten — a good long-term investment for the state, he argues, and a vehicle to close the gap in student achievement based on race and socioeconomic status.

When he was done, Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno — the committee chair who, like Zenzinger, poured a bit of cold water on Tuesday on the draft budget — thanked the governor and asked whether he thought the federal government shutdown would impact the state budget; Polis said yes, maybe, depending on how long the shutdown runs.

Then Moreno asked the committee if they had any questions for Polis, and nobody spoke up. The meeting wrapped with zero discussion or debate about the budget.

In a joint news release following the meeting, Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee issued a series of statements that could be read as attempts to mollify a governor they’d questioned the day before.

“After meeting with Gov. Polis to learn more about his budget proposal,” Moreno said, “I believe his ideas are a solid blueprint which we can build upon for our next budget. I look forward to continued conversations between the JBC and the Governor to see how we can best fulfill these requests and fund these programs in the long-term.”

“I’m glad we had the opportunity to meet with the governor to discuss his budget proposal, and we are ready to get to work on a budget that will help us enact these bold ideas without compromising fiscal responsibility,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. “As we begin to hammer out the details, I’m confident that we will find viable paths forward.”

In a call Wednesday evening, Moreno said the committee was not seeking to placate the governor, but that he and other lawmakers had spoken with Polis behind closed doors about the budget and were able to “fully digest” the proposal ahead of the committee meeting.

“There are still some concerns, but we’re looking forward to working with him,” Moreno said. “We’re all adults and we’re going to figure out how to work together.”

Sage Naumann, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said the two Republicans on the committee kept quiet because, “What it comes down to is the votes.

“Democrats have the votes in both caucuses, so when it comes down to holding the governor accountable, there’s no longer a divided legislature to do that. It’s up to the Democrats.”


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