DENVER – The lawmakers who are writing the state’s $20 billion budget have been retreating behind closed doors to negotiate their toughest decisions, despite a state law that requires public meetings to be conducted in the open.
The six-person Joint Budget Committee is a little more than a week away from finalizing the Long Bill – an aptly named bill that funds schools, colleges, prisons, health care and most other government functions.
The members have been wrestling with the budget since last November, including almost daily meetings since the Legislature convened in January.
But JBC observers say the committee tends to take abrupt recesses and retreat behind closed doors whenever a thorny issue crops up.
“I’ve done that a lot,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, chairwoman of the committee. “Whenever we get to a point that’s tense, I’ve been trying to release the tension.”
One example happened Tuesday, when the panel was discussing a drop in funding from gambling taxes, which pay for the state’s tourism ads and other items.
When Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, expressed frustration at the lack of money and options, Gerou took the committee into recess. The six members retreated into the JBC’s staff offices, behind closed doors, and emerged about half an hour later.
Steadman made a motion to put in a temporary number and revisit the decision later, before the budget is finalized.
Another example happened a week and a half ago, when the panel went into recess without saying why.
The members went into the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. They later revealed they were being consulted on the impending closure of the state’s newest prison, Colorado State Penitentiary II in Cañon City.
State leaders announced the closure publicly last Monday.
The Colorado Open Meetings Act is clear on the matter, said Steve Zansberg, a lawyer with expertise in First Amendment and open government issues.
“If two or more members of the JBC are discussing public business, it’s a meeting and has to be noticed,” Zansberg said.
The law allows closed-door executive sessions for a limited number of matters, but the sessions have to be announced and recorded.
That has not happened with the JBC.
However, lawmakers say the open-meetings act is nearly impossible to follow to the letter in the state Capitol, where 100 legislators are in close contact with each other and often discuss business in the halls or their offices.
And there are times at the JBC – when multimillion-dollar, politically charged decisions are on the line – that lawmakers find it impossible to speak their minds in public, said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, the panel’s vice-chairwoman.
“Everything should be done in public. There’s no question about it. Unfortunately, there are times that issues come up that can’t be resolved in public,” Hodge said.
JBC members have a tradition of sticking together to try to pass the budget once it hits the more political atmosphere of the House and Senate, and Gerou wants to preserve that solidarity among the six members.
“My goal has been to have as many unanimous votes come out of the committee as possible, because that is the best basis for any budget conversation. That has worked,” Gerou said.
Still, close observers of the JBC say the panel is doing more of its work behind closed doors this year than usual.
Former legislator Gayle Berry served on the JBC from 1999 to 2002.
“We would occasionally have closed-door meetings,” Berry said. “This is more frequent than that.”
But, Berry says, in her era, the Legislature was firmly in Republican hands, and she didn’t have to deal with split control of the House and Senate, including a razor-thin GOP majority in the House. Such a dynamic heightens the drama around otherwise routine votes.
“It has always occurred, but we attempted to keep them minimal and short,” Berry said.
Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said he does not challenge Gerou’s calls on public meetings.
“I follow the chair. If the chair believes it’s appropriate, I will not question the authority of the chair,” Becker said.
Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, defended the committee’s practices and said a lot of closed-door meetings involve legal advice or decisions about contracts – allowable exceptions to the open-meetings act.
“I don’t think we’re going outside the spirit of anything. Every decision we make is on the public record,” Lambert said.
He said sometimes the panel retreats behind closed doors to talk about tricky decisions.
“It may have to do with how are we going to explain it to our caucus, how we are going to explain it to the public,” Lambert said. “But it has nothing to do with any particular motion that’s on the table.”
Hodge, a JBC veteran, who chaired the panel last year, said the closed meetings are more frequent this year.
“In general, it all should be done in public. That’s the law,” Hodge said.
Last year, as the budget was nearing completion, JBC members abruptly disappeared from a scheduled public meeting. They were later found in the governor’s budget office, negotiating the most heated parts of the budget.
House Republican leaders wanted to reinstate several tax exemptions that Democrats had enacted, and the behind-the-scenes negotiations held up the 2011 budget for a few weeks.
This year, leaders from both parties are allowing the JBC to do its work without interference, Gerou said.