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(Colorado Springs Gazette/Christian Murdock)
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Colorado House attempts nearly 100 amendments to troubled state budget

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Lawmakers in Colorado’s House attempted nearly 100 amendments to the state’s proposed $26.8 billion annual budget on Thursday.

Much of the conversation is messaging in the Democratic-controlled House, as lawmakers know they aren’t going to see controversial partisan issues advance, across-the-board cuts to state agencies and mandatory investments in programs that would leave the budget out of balance.

But that didn’t stop lawmakers from trying.

One Republican amendment would have raised Medicaid co-payments to fund transportation by an additional $1.4 million. Co-pays would have gone up from $1 for generic drugs and $3 for brand drugs, to $4 for all drugs.

The proposal enraged House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, who pointed out that the legislature is working on a bipartisan proposal to raise money for roads and highways.

“But instead we now have an amendment coming forward that says, ‘You know what? We’re going to fill those potholes and we’re going to deal with traffic congestion and we’re going to do it on the backs of those who are sick and we’re going to do it on the backs of those who are vulnerable,’” Duran said.

Republicans, however, said the effort was about curbing Medicaid spending, which continues to grow in the state budget.

“Health care and the cost of health care, as the Affordable Care Act is imploding, is effecting everyone and ravaging Colorado,” said Rep. Susan Beckman, R-Littleton.

Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs attempted to defund universities that engage in “purchasing, trafficking or trading in aborted baby body parts,” an effort that was ruled “out of scope” by Democrats.

He also proposed an amendment that would express the legislature’s intent to defund so-called sanctuary cities, which protect undocumented immigrants. His amendment was blocked by Democrats, which caused Williams to ask in protest that the entire so-called “Long Bill” be read in its entirety.

Legislation on sanctuary cities failed in the House this year. Another attempt was introduced this week in the Senate, though it faces likely death in the split legislature.

Democrats also proposed a few partisan ideas of their own, including a successful effort to prohibit the attorney general from suing a local government on behalf of a private corporation.

The proposal takes aim at Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who filed a lawsuit against Boulder County over its oil and gas drilling moratorium. Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, who sponsored the amendment, called Coffman’s action an “executive overreach.”

Addressing a troubled budget

The House began debate on Thursday afternoon, after the Senate advanced the Long Bill on a vote of 30-5. The debate was expected to last at least 10 hours. The House will take an initial vote on Thursday, before a final vote that is expected on Friday.

Perhaps the thorniest issue facing lawmakers in the budget proposal is reducing revenue generated from the Hospital Provider Fee by $264 million. The idea is to prevent the state from hitting its spending limit, thereby freeing money for programs and services. The fee is assessed on patient stays to force a match of federal health care dollars. Some rural hospitals say they would close as a result of the maneuver.

The House backed an amendment that would add a footnote to the budget encouraging the state to limit Hospital Provider Fee expenditures for administrative functions in order to apply the savings to support rural hospitals.

But the proposal doesn’t get to the heart of the funding crisis facing rural hospitals. Duran pointed out that a separate effort is underway to restructure the fee so that money would more permanently be available to balance the budget without having to reduce hospital funding.

“I hope that as there are solutions that come through, that we adequately save all of rural hospitals to a greater degree, and we all will have an opportunity to do just that before the session is over,” Duran said.

When the Long Bill was in committee earlier this week, the House stripped four amendments that the Senate passed. One of those amendments would have used $16.3 million in marijuana tax revenue to fund affordable housing, housing for those with behavioral health needs, and to address chronic homelessness.

The House had issues with how the Senate drafted the amendment. So, lawmakers in the House on Thursday passed their own amendment applying the $16.3 million for housing and homeless services, a priority for Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The House also stripped one of two amendments that would eliminate a proposed 3.15 percent raise for judges, which would save about $2.2 million and direct the money to transportation needs. The Senate passed two such amendments, which would have actually resulted in a salary decrease for judges. The House fixed the issue by eliminating one of the amendments.

Similarly, the House stripped Senate amendments that would have added $300,000 to support county veterans services and raised compensation for emergency medical technicians to support ambulance services. Both of those were restored after the House initially eliminated the amendments.

A host of pet projects make it through

The House was more liberal than the Senate when it came to budget amendments, some of which might be reversed as the Joint Budget Committee acts to keep the budget in balance.

Any of the amendments that passed during debate could also be stripped during a procedural recorded vote that will likely take place after initial passage of the bill, but before the final vote on the budget is taken.

Amendments passed to assist Pueblo with organizing the Colorado State Fair; to provide female prisoners with better access to tampons; to support parolees transitioning back into society; to assist students with concurrent enrollment and career and technical education; to benefit energy-savings programs and assist with weatherization; to increase funding for youth services; to help prevent substance abuse; to assist seniors with handyman services; to study protecting youth in custody; and to assist offenders participating in veterans treatment courts.

Reps. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, successfully pushed an amendment that would encourage the state to fund elective circumcision as a Medicaid benefit. The proposal, however, is not a mandate.

There was also a spirited debate over film incentives, with lawmakers adding $1.5 million to encourage production in Colorado, while shifting $750,000 away from tourism promotion and using existing resources to make up the difference.

The House was also likely to maintain amendments passed by the Senate that would fund the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which is given to students to better understand youth health; reimburse Connect for Health Colorado for expenses that are mandated by the federal government; and to fund implementation of Proposition 106, which allows terminally ill patients to request medication that would end their life.

Despite woes budget grows

Despite the troubled budget – which included nearly $700 million in reductions to balance the budget based on the governor’s initial November request – the annual spending plan reflects a nearly 7 percent increase in discretionary spending over the current fiscal year.

Budget writers carved out $10.6 billion for the General Fund. The total budget would reflect a more than 4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Transportation is taking a hit. After a $110 million reduction, only $79 million of discretionary dollars would be available to fix crumbling roads and highways without the separate transportation funding legislation.

Schools are also expected to see the so-called “negative factor,” or gap in fully required education funding, grow by $48 million. State spending on schools would fall short of required spending by $879 million after the negative factor increase. Per-pupil funding, however, would rise by about $185 for each student compared to the current budget.

Cash funds were raided in an effort to balance the budget, including taking money from severance tax collections that are meant to help local governments.

Some modest bright spots include a 1.75 percent salary increase and a 0.75 percent merit raise for state employees, who had wanted a minimum 2.5 percent increase. The last raise was in 2014, when employees saw a 2.5 percent bump.

Budget writers were also able to set the state’s reserve fund at 6.5 percent, though they had wanted to bump it up to 8 percent. The reserve acts as a sort of rainy day fund for the state.

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