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Insights: Meltdown in Colorado legislature over centerpiece issues

Colorado Legislature, Opinion, Uncategorized 1 Comment 843

The legislature experienced a meltdown on Thursday.

At around 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, the Capitol press corps was summoned to Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham’s office for an 8 a.m. meeting on Thursday. Republicans were super secretive about it.

“Senate President Kevin Grantham will meet with the professional press at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, April 20, in his office, for a half hour update on legislative developments.”

The press corps usually meets in Grantham’s office every Monday morning at 8 a.m. to discuss the upcoming week. It’s great that they do that. No other caucus this year has met with the press corps on a weekly basis, ahem, House Democrats.

We reporters started wondering what this spontaneous last-minute press conference could be about with 20 days left in the session. The assumptions were transportation funding and an effort to restructure the Hospital Provider Fee.

After a few phone calls late Wednesday night, it seemed like both issues were going to be discussed in the morning, but with a focus on a breakdown in talks over the Hospital Provider Fee.

It ended up being the reverse, the focus was on transportation funding, with a twist of Hospital Provider Fee. Either way, both topics were discussed, and both efforts were collapsing.

It’s been hard – despite Grantham’s best efforts – to separate transportation funding talks from restructuring the Hospital Provider Fee, which would free money for roads, schools and hospitals, especially in rural parts of the state. So, it made sense that the two issues were discussed in tandem on Thursday.

There we were, eyes blurry from an already long week in the legislature, most of us sleep deprived, some of us sitting on a couch in Grantham’s office, others sitting on chairs, as Grantham lamented over the uphill battle ahead for transportation funding.

Enter Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican who has led Hospital Provider Fee talks for his caucus. Sonnenberg – as has been the case for a handful of other Republicans – has evolved on the issue of restructuring the fee, but with the caveat of lowering the state’s spending cap so that taxpayer refunds can be triggered faster. It’s also become a rural issue for some Republicans, where hospitals might close and schools are struggling.

Sonnenberg might as well have had guns blazing as he stormed in to say he heard we were discussing a breakdown in negotiations on Wednesday night.

Some of this might have been my fault. I asked Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman about it ahead of the media availability, and I told her Republicans were likely going to be discussing that with us on Thursday morning. She spoke to Sonnenberg about it, and then he came blazing into Grantham’s office to talk to us.

It turns out the rumors were true. Those Hospital Provider Fee talks did breakdown.

A frustrated Sonnenberg stated, “I have come more than halfway and that ain’t enough. I was interested in saving hospitals and they’re interested in keeping more taxpayer dollars. I don’t know where this goes from here.”

I asked the Senate president pro tem, “Are you still talking,” referring to negotiations. He responded, “No. I’m done.

“If we’re not going to have negotiations, there’s not point in having a damn bill.”

Just moments later, however, Sonnenberg asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to delay a vote on his bill, adding, “I am not ready to give up.”

The issue is the spending limit cap portion of the bill. Republicans first proposed lowering the cap by $670 million, but in an effort to appease Democrats, they offered to cut that in half and lower it by $335 million. In their minds, Republicans literally met Democrats halfway. And given the major leap in ideology for some Republicans on the subject, it seemed like a solid offering.

Not for House Democratic Leader KC Becker, who has been leading discussions for House Democrats.

“HIs number of $335 million, first of all, is not meeting us halfway, because there’s a whole lot more in that bill that has to be fixed,” Becker said. “It’s not meeting us halfway, it’s kicking the can down the road.”

The impasse on transportation talks is owned largely by Senate Republicans, namely one suddenly very important man in the legislature, Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who supporters of the effort hoped would be the swing vote. It doesn’t look like he will be.

“I’m not going to be supporting a tax increase unless we’ve done the other things that we can do first,” Tate said on Thursday.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran this year has staked much of her legacy in being able to push a transportation funding proposal through. Nice work on claiming victory for construction defect reform, Madam Speaker – a bright spot in the legislature this week – but without transportation funding, she’s missing a major component of her agenda.

She was not thrilled about the impasse on transportation talks, arguing over and over on Thursday that Republicans who oppose the bill are “turning their backs” on the people of Colorado.

Are both of these efforts still alive? Yes. Are they on life support? That’s an understatement.

But without a solution, legislative leaders face criticism not only from us in the press corps, but from the constituents who they promised success. Let’s see where this goes.

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