DENVER – Legislators retreated behind closed doors Monday to hash out a state budget, but they failed to reach a deal.
At issue is the size of the cut they will deal to public schools, as well as the possible repeal of some tax increases that Democrats enacted last year.
Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said negotiators agreed on 99 percent of the budget, but he used the same figure last week.
“From our perspective, the more important thing than setting deadlines is to craft a responsible budget,” McNulty said.
The Legislature’s official agenda said the Joint Budget Committee was supposed to meet at 1:30 to work on the budget. But the six members were not in their hearing room at the time. Hours later, reporters learned they had been meeting in a conference room in the governor’s budget office.
It’s a five-way negotiation among Gov. John Hickenlooper’s staff and the Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate.
“It’s fair to say the greatest level of frustration comes in trying to get four caucuses of cats to agree on something,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton.
McNulty’s House Republicans are the squeaky wheel. Senate Democrats and Republicans had printed their own budget over the weekend, and they intended to introduce it Monday afternoon. But they decided to wait in the hopes that the Joint Budget Committee could agree on a deal.
“There’s no reason to end the dialogue,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, late Monday afternoon. “We’ll give them as long as they need to reach a solution today.”
The Senate recessed for the day a few hours later without introducing a budget bill.
In a typical year, the Joint Budget Committee holds recorded public meetings to set the budget line by line. Monday’s closed-door meeting made it difficult to follow which issues are on the table.
“That’s a real concern of mine as well, and that’s one reason I would like to introduce a bill,” Shaffer said.
Participants described various House Republican positions, including demands to restore sales-tax exemptions for farm equipment and software, to decrease the amount spent on schools from the State Education Fund and to allow school districts and local governments to cut payments to their employees’ retirement fund.
McNulty said all those ideas are part of the discussion, but he did not offer specifics late Monday other than saying he wants permanent cuts to government instead of one-time measures to postpone cuts for another year.
“House Republicans said at the beginning of the session that we weren’t going to kick the can down the road,” McNulty said.
Shaffer’s Senate Democrats are aiming for a $232 million cut to schools, down from the $332 million Hickenlooper proposed in February.
Last week, Senate Republicans made an attempt to prevent the Legislature from grabbing about $100 million in gas and oil tax money, most of which is supposed to be set aside for local governments and water projects. But Republicans appeared to have given up on keeping that money for local governments.