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A style change in the Colorado Republican Senate helped advance critical issues

Author: Peter Marcus - May 14, 2017 - Updated: May 14, 2017

Prior to the start of the legislative session in January, Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham said restructuring a hospital fee to raise money for state services was off the table.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said the point was so lost, it was the definition of insanity for her party to keep asking.

Republicans prior to the session also pushed a familiar narrative of using existing tax revenue and fighting against any tax increases.

But then came bills backed by prominent high-profile Republicans aimed at a tax increase for roads and a restructuring of the Hospital Provider Fee.

While the $3.5 billion transportation proposal never gained enough GOP support to send the issue to voters, historic progress was made on the Hospital Provider Fee, which cleared the divided legislature with GOP support.

It was a remarkable evolution from where the subject stood just months earlier, and from last year under Republican Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs. Much of the caucus had always claimed restructuring the fee was a violation of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, considered a Holy Grail to conservative interests.

“It wasn’t a unanimous thing within our caucus, it was a pretty tough thing,” Grantham said of the effort this year to create a 20-year funding program directing $1.8 billion towards critical services, including for schools, roads and hospitals.

“I started the session off talking about this being a nonstarter. The proposal that we saw for the last two years was completely unappetizing for us and there was nothing about it that I wanted anything to do with.”

A dire situation
But then rural hospitals were placed in jeopardy. State budget writers were forced to reduce the fee on hospital-bed occupancy by $264 million in an effort to balance the budget. With a federal match, hospitals in Colorado stood to lose about $528 million. Some rural hospitals said they would close. And with transportation funding bills in trouble, lawmakers also had to search for alternatives.

Enter Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from rural Sterling, who realized that he was dealing with a literal life or death situation in rural parts of the state where people might not be able to access emergency health care.

“I know it’s the right thing to do for rural Colorado, we can’t continue to balance the budget on the back of hospitals,” Sonnenberg said.

But the move could prove to be problematic for Republicans who supported the effort, as they are sure to face backlash from conservative interests.

“I’m already getting beat up on social media,” Sonnenberg said. “The truth is, I get beat up for a lot of things. For me, it’s the right thing to do for rural Colorado.”

Sonnenberg was able to rally support for the fee restructuring by also lowering the state spending cap base by $200 million to protect taxpayer rebates and by addressing Medicaid reform by increasing co-pays for Medicaid patients. The legislation also created a credit for businesses paying taxes on business equipment, another popular issue for the GOP.

Still, several members of the caucus opposed the Hospital Provider Fee shift, as well as the tax increase for roads. But Republican leaders said they wanted to provide a long leash for members to be able to work on the issues, and to reach across the aisle to Democrats.

“I am proud that we have a caucus of members, 18 people who know that their vote is something that they are accountable for to their constituents,” said Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker, who opposed the Hospital Provider Fee bill. “I’ve said before, ‘I didn’t hire them, and I can’t fire them.’ I look at my role as majority leader more as a team captain.”

Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, one of the more conservative members of the caucus, also opposed the legislation. But he said he never felt any pressure.

“Caucus members were at odds on different things that they felt were critical to their constituents and some ideological issues, but as far as the process of working with the president and majority leader, it was a very good year there,” Neville said.

The question is just how much backlash will come from conservative groups. Americans for Prosperity called the recent legislative session its “strongest session yet” and chose not to lash out at Republicans who supported the controversial efforts this year.

“We worked hard to inform citizens and legislators about policies that impact economic freedom,” said AFP state director Michael Fields. “We thank the senators and representatives that voted to make government live within its means, prioritize the state budget, and protect free choice.”

The conservative group pointed out that it saw the defeat of the transportation tax hike proposal; a start towards equal funding for charter schools; construction defect litigation reform; the death of a bipartisan measure that would have changed how TABOR works; a failure to advance additional restrictions on the oil and gas industry; and a reduction in film production incentives.

But the transportation issue remains a thorny topic.

“The debate over transportation funding was a debacle this session,” Fields said. “With billions of dollars needed to fix our roads, reprioritizing the budget to meet the needs of Colorado’s infrastructure will remain critical in future years.”

A willingness to strike a deal
Perhaps the biggest change in tone over last year was the legislature’s willingness to work together this year to push issues across the finish line.

“They were able to find words to put on paper that moved that ball forward, and that’s what I would encourage constituents to consider,” Holbert said. “It may not be the word ‘compromise,’ it may not be giving up half of what one wants in exchange for half of what one does not want.”

Sonnenberg added, “There’s too much emphasis on compromise and not enough emphasis on actually finding the common ground that we can agree on.”

Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver agreed that there was a shift in tone over last year that helped advance certain critical issues. And over in the Democratic-controlled House, Speaker Duran had similar thoughts.

“This session … was representative of making sure that we have people who are willing to have tough conversations about issues that can be very challenging, and that throughout the negotiations process that nobody ever locks down and says, ‘No, no, no,’” Duran said. “And that if there is an issue that is challenging, or if there are particular things that one party wants that the other cannot do, then what can you do? What is possible?”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.