New faces and a new controlling party will greet lawmakers when they return to the state Capitol in January for the next legislative session. But at least one thing remains the same -- the need to solve the state's fiscal mess.
This year's session ended in May with no solutions to conflicting constitutional amendments that limit how much the state can spend while also requiring increased expenditures on public education.
In a vastly changed political landscape -- Democrats control the Legislature for the first time in 40 years -- fixing the state's budget problems remains the top priority of lawmakers from both parties as the first session of the 65th General Assembly approaches. Lawmakers convene Jan. 12 to begin the 120-day session.
"At the top of everybody's list, including mine, is to come up with a (budget) solution to propose to the voters," state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said last week. "To me, it was tragic that we didn't get something done last year."
At issue are two constitutional amendments, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and Amendment 23. TABOR, approved by voters in 1992, limits the amount of revenue the state can keep and spend. Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, requires the state to increase kindergarten-through 12th-grade education funding annually by a rate of inflation plus 1 percent.
Within the confines set by those amendments, the state is facing $263 million in program cuts this year. Republicans and Democrats are floating several proposals to deal with the problem, including short term fixes and long-term solutions.
In the short-term, many Republicans, including Gov. Bill Owens, favor selling the state's share of the tobacco settlement, which would raise between $800 million and $900 million. Lawmakers could use about $100 million to balance this year's budget, with the remainder going into a rainy day fund. Taylor and Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, support the proposal.
For a longer-term solution, White and other Republicans support asking voters to release the state from TABOR revenue restrictions and allow the state to keep about $200 million in tax refunds to solve the budget gap during the next two years. Such a "de-Brucing" effort, named after TABOR author Douglas Bruce, would last two years. TABOR refunds then would resume after the two-year hiatus.
With state revenues beginning to increase, the de-Brucing measure would allow the state to catch up to where it was before revenues began to decline. Once caught up, typical revenues should prevent the state from facing a similar problem in the foreseeable future, White said.
"My concern is whether the citizens will vote for something like that," White said Thursday.
Taylor also suggested coupling the de-Brucing measure with a relaxation of Amendment 23 for a specific period of time, such as one or two years, to allow the state to make up its $500 million structural deficit. With the structural deficit removed and revenues increasing, TABOR and Amendment 23 could return to their original forms.
Taylor is optimistic that lawmakers will work together to solve the budget issue.
"But the final say is what the voters will accept," he said. State law requires a majority vote of the people to change a constitutional amendment.
Some Democrats, including House Speaker-elect Andrew Romanoff of Denver, propose cutting taxes from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent but allowing the state to keep all of its revenue.
The success of potential budget solutions is contingent upon the willingness of both parties to work together. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years, and the pressure is suddenly on them to lead the way out of the fiscal mess.
"We don't have the luxury of picking an agenda," Romanoff said Wednesday at a legislative press conference in Denver. "It picked us.
"We will pursue good public policy, not partisan politics," Romanoff said, adding that Democrats plan to change the climate from the "shortage of statesmanship" and "excess of partisanship" that dominated the statehouse under Republican leadership.
Taylor and White said they always have worked across the political aisle and don't expect Democratic control to change their ability to be successful legislators. Some Republican lawmakers won't be so lucky, White said.
"I have no doubt there will be three to six Republican legislators that will have a target on their backs because they were perceived as being heavy-handed against Democrats," he said.
Aside from the budget issue, Taylor and White are working on legislation that would provide as much as $15 million annually for tourism promotion.
Taylor also said he's working on a bill to address the conflicts arising in Northwest Colorado between surface property owners and gas and oil companies drilling in the area. Although he declined to discuss specifics, Taylor said the bill will deal with liability issues and other requirements for drilling companies.
Water issues will continue to be a concern, particularly for Western Slope lawmakers, White said. He and others will continue to lobby for a basin-of-origin bill to protect Western Slope water.
Health care and the business personal property tax also are expected to play a significant role in the upcoming legislative session.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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