DENVER – The day after the legislative session ended, leaders from both sides of the aisle played the blame game, pointing fingers at the other party for lackluster progress.
The list of priorities at the beginning of the year were bountiful:
Restructure a hospital provider fee to free money for state services;Fund crumbling roads and highways;Switch from a chaotic caucus system to a presidential primary; Push construction defects reform to spur affordable housing.None of those issues advanced.
“There was so much great potential for accomplishing so many things for the people of Colorado, and those things that didn’t happen are problematic for us,” Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said on Thursday, after the session ended late Wednesday.
But Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who serves as president pro tempore, cautioned against calling it a “do-nothing session.”
She pointed to a $27 billion budget that passed with bipartisan support, which avoided $373 million in cuts originally proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“I’ve been here 10 years and I don’t think I’ve seen a budget put together as comprehensive for the entire state,” Roberts said.
Lawmakers made some progress on affordable housing, expanding a low-income housing tax credit and allowing prospective home buyers to use tax-free savings accounts. But observers don’t expect those bills to make much of a dent in a growing crisis.
More significant, lawmakers did not bypass a contentious stakeholder process to introduce legislation that would curb construction defects lawsuits to encourage building.
But it was the hospital provider fee that overshadowed much of the year.
Outgoing Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, drew a line in the sand before the session even began, unveiling an oversized legal memo on an easel in his office that stated switching to an enterprise fund, or government-owned business, would be illegal.
Less than a month later, Cadman stood in a foyer in the Capitol with the conservative Americans for Prosperity – who strongly opposed the fee restructuring – and declared: “I don’t think I would be the president of the Senate if it wasn’t for... you.”
Democrats didn’t introduce the hospital provider fee legislation until March 28, but by then the tone was set.
One day before the legislative session ended, Senate Republicans killed the effort, despite a late-February opinion from Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman that stated the move would be legal.
The sticking point was Medicaid. Republicans didn’t want to free additional money for government to spend without curbing entitlement spending.
“They ‘promise’ this money won’t go into health care entitlements ‘notwithstanding’ surprises,” Cadman said of Democrats. “It’s like a solid promise, sort of, maybe.”
The plan would have exempted the fee from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, taking the revenue out of the TABOR calculation and lowering taxpayer refunds set aside in the general fund, thereby freeing money for spending.
The fee is forecasted to generate $730 million in revenue for the upcoming fiscal year. The additional money would have gone to schools, roads, local severance tax funds, capital construction and discretionary spending.
“What is most disappointing to me is the influence of Americans for Prosperity,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “I think we should start calling Americans for Prosperity what they are, which is Americans for potholes.”
“I don’t think it was my fault, I think it was the Senate’s fault,” added House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, who is term-limited after this year.
Michael Fields, state director for AFP, responded: “Why are these liberal legislators so afraid to ask the people for more money?” suggesting that the issue should have gone to the ballot. “It’s because they know that most Coloradans believe that $27 billion is more than enough to fix potholes and educate our kids.”
The hospital provider fee idea was first proposed last year by Hickenlooper, a Democrat. The governor said he has not ruled out calling a special session.
“We knew from the beginning that he (Cadman) felt this was a difficult hill for him to climb,” Hickenlooper said. “Depending on whether we have a special session, he might still get a chance.”
When it came to transportation funding, similar gridlock plagued the process.
Republicans – in the last days of the session – pushed asking voters to approve $3.5 billion in bonds to fund road construction. Democrats a week later killed the effort.
Republicans alleged that Democrats killed the transportation proposal because the hospital provider fee was rejected.
“I’m beginning to think... that there’s one side that fully doesn’t believe that the issue is as bad as what it is,” said outgoing House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland.
Outside of funding, what’s particularly perplexing is the loss of legislation that would have moved Colorado from a caucus to a presidential primary.
The effort had bipartisan sponsorship, and the time seemed right, given the March 1 caucus, which was mired by complaints over long lines and confusion.
“How did that happen?” asked Hickenlooper. “That seemed like something that was going to be a fairly easy bipartisan win.”