Dominick Moreno discusses hard budget choices, winning election as a youngster and accidentally finding the panic button

Author: Ernest Luning - March 28, 2017 - Updated: May 24, 2017

State Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, talks with a member of the Democratic 7th Congressional District central committee at its reorganization meeting on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at the Pipefitters Local Union No. 208 hall in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
State Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, talks with a member of the Democratic 7th Congressional District central committee at its reorganization meeting on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at the Pipefitters Local Union No. 208 hall in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

State Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, has been in office longer than many of his fellow lawmakers but is still the youngest member of the state Senate, a distinction he explores in this week’s episode of “Behind the Politics,” a podcast produced by the Senate Democrats. The 32-year-old  member of the Joint Budget Committee also talks about the “huge challenges” balancing constitutional mandates in the $26.8 billion budget bill introduced late Monday in the Senate and reveals the most embarrassing moment he’s experienced at the Capitol, which involved a group of rambunctious elementary school students who accidentally summoned the State Patrol.

Moreno’s 15-minute discussion with Senate Minority staffers David Pourshoushtari and Jill Mullen is the latest installment in the minority office’s weekly podcast, posted to iTunes and YouTube on Monday. Along with weekly video monologues released by the House Republicans and more freeform messages posted online by their Senate cohorts, it’s part of a growing trend this session for lawmakers to reach viewers and listeners.

While Moreno has been known for his relative youth in elective office — at age 24, he became the youngest member on the Commerce City Council before winning a seat in the House — duties as the Senate Democrats’ lone appointment on the Joint Budget Committee this session could be adding a few premature gray hairs to his stylish mohawk. “It’s the only position where, as soon as you get elected, you’re handed all this information and are expected to master it the next day,” he says. “That’s been a challenge, is just the level of mastery that you’re expected to have over a variety of different departments and state budgets.”

JBC members tend to specialize — state Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, for instance, is an expert in intellectual and developmental disability issues, state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, knows school finance in and out, and state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, is the go-to expert on the state’s severance tax system, he notes — but Moreno has yet to concentrate on an area of expertise, he says. “I’m looking at maybe higher education, because there’s such huge issues there, and affordability for families, so I’d love to do more on that,” Moreno says, although he’s also considering Medicaid — “particularly making sure folks who are vulnerable, who are low income or have disabilities or have diabetes and need procedures there are all taken care of.”

The uncertainty over federal funding for the Medicaid program makes that a particularly fraught topic, he adds. “My hope is that we will be able to pick up the slack in Colorado, that the federal government doesn’t decimate a really important program like Medicaid by reducing their financial commitment and responsibility to that program, because if they do that, we’re going to have some really tough choices in Colorado.”

The interplay between the revenue-lifting Taxpayer Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and its requirements for education spending and the Gallagher Amendment, which governs how property taxes are allocated between residential and business properties, has put unusual pressure on the budget this year, Moreno says, particularly because it’s been since 2003 that the Gallagher Amendment last played a major role affecting state finances.

“Most people have forgotten that (Gallagher) can have a devastating impact on the state budget,” he says, pointing out that overall property tax revenues throughout the state, including everything from cities and counties to school districts, water districts and fire protection districts. “These people are all facing huge cuts in their budgets next year,” Moreno says, although schools are the only entity that the Legislature can help by making up some of their shortfall.

“Those other fire districts, water districts, parks districts — all those folks are just going to lose money, and we can’t do anything about it at the state Capitol,” he says. “For schools, that’s a different story, but this is a huge challenge that we’re facing for next year, and it’s resulting in us having to find another over $150 million in our budget because they’re going to lose that in additional property tax revenue.”

He also makes a pitch to legislators to reclassify the Hospital Provider Fee into an enterprise fund, potentially freeing up millions of dollars to spend on education and transportation.

“If we can’t do something on Hospital Provider Fee and making it an enterprise or doing something, I think we will see rural hospitals close,” he says, echoing warnings that have cropped up on both sides of the aisle this session. “And we will see entities like Denver Health, which is a safety-net hospital — where they will serve anyone no matter your ability to pay — they are going to face a huge cut as well, and they are going to have to limit he care that they provide to people. This is a huge challenge, and it’s one of the reasons I’m really hopeful we will be able to get to a deal on the Hospital Provider Fee this session.”

Turning to more biographical matters, Moreno talks about being born and raised in Adams County. “Actually, I live only a block away from the house I grew up in, where my parents still live. Super convenient if you’re still a bachelor, like I am, you can go home for home-cooked meals all the time,” he says with a chuckle.

He was awarded a Daniels Fund scholarship to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and, he says, “While there, I very much took to the Jesuit mission of social justice, of contributing back in some small way. I didn’t have the traditional profile of a kid that goes to Georgetown. I had to work, but I also found time to do community service, I did after-school programs in South East D.C. elementary schools and packaged meals for people with terminal illnesses. All those different service projects really provided me with a meaningful experience in college.”

But by the time he graduated it was 2008, he adds — “My problem is, I have horrible timing” — and the recession was hitting hard. “So I ended up moving back home and into my parents’ basement, like every college graduate those days. And that’s when I randomly got a Facebook message from a friend I went to high school with. And she said, ‘You know, there are seats up on the city council, and I think you should run.’ And my immediate thought was, I don’t know of anyone who’s going to vote for a 24-year-old who lives in his parents’ basement, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Moreno recalls that he had no idea how to run for office but then gave it some more thought and decided, “You know what, the success I’ve had in my life to date is not my own. It came from the people in the community who supported me, my teachers, my parents. And why not use this amazing education I was able to get right at home. So I decided to run for city council at 24, living in my parent’s basement.”

He says designed his campaign flier on Microsoft word and printed copies at Kinko’s — in black and white because he couldn’t afford color — and started distributing them. “Universally,” he says, “people said the same thing: ‘You don’t have the most experience, but we know you. You grew up here, and we admire the you, in some small way, are trying to pay back everything that you were given growing up.’ By the time I jumped in, two other people had announced, and I didn’t think I had any chance whatsoever. Election Day came around, and I actually ended up getting more votes than  the other two people combined and became the youngest person ever elected in Commerce City history.”

Anyone who’s ever seen the classic 1972 Robert Redford film “The Candidate” knows what came next.

“And when that happens, all you can think is, ‘Crap, what do I do now?’ because I never expected to win,” Moreno says with a laugh. “I got up to speed on the issues very quickly — loved serving on a city council. That is where government — where the rubber meets the road, there. You talk to people every day. They call you if their trash doesn’t get picked up, they call you if a they have a neighbor’s barking dog just won’t, is keeping you awake. It’s all those very small issues but really important in people’s lives. I loved that direct contact I was able to have with folks.”

Then when a seat opened up in the House, Moreno says he saw a chance to have some influence and get involved in all the things he cared about in college — civil rights, education, health care — and was elected to the seat, serving two full terms before a successful run for the seat opened up when former state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, declined to seek reelection in order to take a job out of state.

As for the most embarrassing thing he can remember happening at the Capitol — it’s a standard question the podcast hosts ask — Moreno said no question, it was something that had happened just that day.

“We were hosting students from Mesa Elementary at the Capitol today,” he says, already laughing at the fresh memory. “We kind of let them run wild in one of the Senate committee rooms — ‘Oh, yeah, sit in the senators’ seats, take some photos, have a good time!’ Well, it turns out, in some of that ensuing chaos that was there with these elementary kids, someone found the panic button and pressed it.”

Still sounding a bit amazed, Moreno continues: “So State Patrol came to the Senate committee room — it was after (the students) had left — but the sergeants had told me that someone had pressed the panic button. I stayed back to apologize to State Patrol and let them know that there were these kids that were having a good time in the Senate committee room, and I didn’t know there was a panic button, but apparently there was, and someone pushed it. But they were very understanding, and that was pretty embarrassing today.”

And with that, Pourshoushtari thanks Moreno for the interview and announces that state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, will be next week’s guest. Previous guests on the podcast include state Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo.


Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.