Steamboat Springs' state legislators are happy with the bipartisan budget deal they helped to craft last week. Now, state Sen. Jack Taylor and state Rep. Al White said, comes the hard part -- selling the plan to voters.
"I think our state government is as lean as a picked-clean hambone," White said. "But convincing the taxpayers that's the case will be difficult."
Taylor estimates it will take an $8 million to $10 million campaign -- which the state is barred from funding -- to get the plan approved in November.
The plan, the Colorado Economic Recovery Act, is the result of negotiations that have gone on for most of the legislative session. The deal was announced last week during a bipartisan press conference that included Republican Gov. Bill Owens and the Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate, Rep. Andrew Romanoff and Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald.
The plan amends the Tax--payers Bill of Rights by eliminating the so-called "ratchet effect," which limited the state's ability to recoup lost tax revenue after an economic recession. Other elements of the plan:
For the next five years, all revenue collected by the state can be used to provide various services. That means there will be no taxpayer refunds when there is surplus cash in state coffers.
In the sixth year, 2011, if there is revenue above the amount that the state can invest in services, the first $100 million will pay bonding obligations for construction and other needs, including funds for police and fire pensions, kindergarten through 12th-grade school construction and transportation. The state also could opt to save the money.
In 2011, the state can begin spending an amount equal to the highest revenue brought in during the first five years, plus adjustments for inflation and population growth.
If there is enough excess revenue in 2011 and subsequent years, the state income tax will be reduced by 0.13 percent (to 4.5 percent). Excess revenue above that amount will be refunded to taxpayers.
Beyond the sixth year, the state-spending limit will be the limit from the previous year, plus inflation and population growth, unless the public votes to change it.
Taylor and White, Repub--licans, crossed party lines to help broker the compromise. White joined five other Republicans in voting for Romanoff's bill and getting it approved in the House. Taylor agreed at the start of the session to co-sponsor Romanoff's bill in the Senate.
"This was not the time for partisan politics. This was far more important than any one individual or party," Taylor said. "It was time to get something done, and that's what we got done."
Early in the session, White was pressured by Republicans to withhold support for a Democratic plan. But when the budget negotiations stopped, White decided it was time to break ranks.
"Partisan politics is sometimes an impediment to good public policy, and I refuse to play that game," White said. "When the negotiations stalled and nothing was moving, it was time to do what needed to be done.
"There will be some heat from some of the more right-wing caucus members, but they've got their constituencies, and I've got mine."
Taylor, who was involved in Senate modifications on Romanoff's bill after it was approved in the House, said the plan was "solidly negotiated." He expects the plan to win final approval in the next 10 days.
Taylor said the simplest way to explain the complex deal is to describe it as a "debrucing of TABOR for six years to get the state back on line financially." He thinks the support of the business community will be key to the plan's success in November.
It is estimated that keeping taxpayer refunds will give the state an additional $3.1 billion during the next five years. Taylor said those refunds would amount to an average of $60 per person each year.
Budget reform was the top priority for the legislative session, but Taylor and White said there is still much work to be done. Foremost, lawmakers have to prepare a budget based on the assumption that voters will reject the plan in November. That means making nearly $300 million in cuts during the next two years.
"All we can do is prepare our current budget using current statutes," White said. "That means cuts have to be made."
If the budget reform plan is approved, legislators can restore some of the cuts. Without it, Taylor said, "we'd just have to keep cutting, cutting, cutting."
--To reach Scott Stanford, call 871-4221 or e-mail email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.