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Trail of dead bills blamed on partisanship at Colorado Legislature

Roads, primary, fee restructure died late
The gold-covered dome on the Colorado State Capitol shines in the late afternoon sun in downtown Denver. A politically divided Legislature, which ended its session Wednesday, in an election year to boot, has proven to be a recipe for Colorado lawmakers to do just short of nothing about the state’s most urgent priorities: a scarcity of affordable housing and near-stagnant funding for underfunded K-12 schools, roads and higher education.

DENVER – Within hours of the end of the legislative session, leaders played the blame game, pointing fingers at the other party for lackluster progress.

The list of priorities earlier in 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 initially 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 to curb construction defects lawsuits and encourage building.

But it was the hospital provider fee that overshadowed much of this year’s work.

Outgoing Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, drew a line in the sand before the session began, unveiling an oversized legal memo on an easel that stated: Switching to an enterprise fund, or government-owned business, would be illegal.

Less than a month later, Cadman stood in a Capitol foyer with Americans for Prosperity – which 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 session ended, Senate Republicans killed the effort, despite a late-February opinion from Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman that the move would be legal.

The sticking point was Medicaid. Republicans didn’t want to free money for government to spend without curbing entitlement spending.

“They ‘promise’ this money won’t go into health care entitlements ‘notwithstanding’ surprises,” Cadman said. “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 forecast 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.”

Michael Fields, state director for AFP, responded: “Why are these liberal legislators so afraid to ask the people for more money?” saying 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 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 – backed asking voters to approve $3.5 billion in bonds to pay for road construction. Democrats killed the effort.

Republicans alleged that Democrats killed it 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.

What’s particularly puzzling is the failure to move Colorado from a caucus to a presidential primary.

Both sides wanted it 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.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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