Legislative Priorities Unraveling at Colorado Capitol

Apr 21, 2017

Tempers are flaring in the final weeks of Colorado's legislative session and some of the top priorities for lawmakers are in serious jeopardy of failing.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, brought reporters into his office for a hastily called news conference Thursday, April 20, to explain why his bipartisan bill that would ask voters for billions of dollars for transportation projects could soon be dead.

Sen. Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs), left, joins Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City) to tell reporters they don't have the Republican votes to pass a bipartisan transportation funding bill.
Credit Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

"No matter how you slice it this comes down to a sales tax increase," he said. "I'm not sure how many ornaments we can hang on this tree that will make that not as important as it is."

Even with the backing of Grantham and transportation committee chair Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, House Bill 1242 faced an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.

It would ask voters to increase the state's sales tax by a half-cent for a $3.5 billion bond for statewide transportation and raise millions more for local road and transit projects. The bill cleared its first committee. It's now expected to be defeated in the finance committee.

"I knew they were going to be tough sells from the beginning before I ever dropped this bill," said Grantham.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colo. Springs, who is running for Congress, has evaded earlier questions about the bill, but it's not the type of legislation he has backed in the past. Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, is opposed to new tax increases and thinks the state should re-prioritize existing funding. The third Republican on the Finance Committee said he plans to vote no.

"After we trim the hedge and mow the grass we can look at more landscaping, but until that happens I don't think it's appropriate for us to do that," said Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial. 

Tate, however, does support a separate related bill, Senate Bill 267. It would add about one billion dollars for transportation by using state buildings as leverage to borrow money for large infrastructure projects. It would also enterprise a fee collected by hospitals and move the money into a fund that doesn't count towards a cap on how much money the state can spend. It's still alive, but in limbo in the senate.  

TABOR limits how much money the state can spend to inflation plus population growth. Once the state reaches that cap, money must be refunded to voters. Republicans want to lower the cap; Democrats do not.

"I have come more than halfway and that ain't enough," said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. "I was interested in saving hospitals and they're interested in keeping more taxpayer dollars. I don't know where this goes from here."

Democrats countered that they were negotiating in good faith but don't want to lower the TABOR cap by Sonnenberg's amount. They said it would force Colorado to give refunds to voters instead of using that money for budget priorities like education.

"We are more than willing to stay at the table and negotiate, but it's give and take; but where they're at right now is not responsible to the people of the state of Colorado." - House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver

"It's not that we're unwilling to compromise, but we can't compromise on a $330 million deal," said Sen. Minority leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who is one of the bill's main sponsors along with Sonnenberg. "That is simply not economically feasible for us. We will be right up at that cap next year or the next year."

But Guzman said she hasn't had a chance to make Sonnenberg an offer. She criticized House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, for not including her in all of the negotiations.

"I have had a very politically energized conversation with the Speaker of the House during the wee hours of this day, and I have said this is my bill. As long as we are working it in the Senate, which is where it is. Let us work this bill here," said Guzman.

For her part, Duran said her party does not want to see the current $500 million effective budget cut for hospitals. Some rural hospitals have said they would shut their doors or cut services.

"We are more than willing to stay at the table and negotiate, but it's give and take; but where they're at right now is not responsible to the people of the state of Colorado," Duran said.

House leaders also note that it's normal for the majority members in both chambers to do more of the negotiating. Duran said she would be extremely disappointed if a major transportation package and hospital bill fail this session. She said she is frustrated and feels that some Republicans are being too ideological.

"The saddest things about this is, that we're coming forward so that we don't leave communities behind, and you know which communities are most likely to be left behind if we don't come forward with a statewide solution? It's going to be those rural communities," Duran said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham also called it a potentially big disappointment, but said he still has a few working days left to try to pitch the finance committee on the transportation bill.

"I haven't written the obituary yet," he said.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.