budget Archives - Colorado Politics

Peter MarcusPeter MarcusJuly 6, 201714min181
GOLDEN – The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has 40 years of history behind it, but walking through its sprawling Front Range campus one can’t help but think 40 years into the future. Solar cells that can be spray-painted onto windows or printed at a Home Depot; power grids that can take in a wide portfolio […]

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Peter MarcusPeter MarcusJune 20, 20175min1581

Colorado’s economy has grown for the past eight years since the economic downturn, and it’s on a path towards the longest expansion in the state’s history, lawmakers heard Tuesday.

State budget writers received an update from the governor’s office and legislative staff on the June revenue forecast for the state.

Colorado is currently in its third-largest economic expansion in the state’s history, with a record-low May unemployment rate of 2.3 percent. Colorado enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.

The national unemployment rate stands at 4.3 percent.

The Colorado unemployment rate is expected to tick up, but only slightly, meaning the state will continue to benefit from a booming jobs market and economy, albeit with some constraint ahead.

As expected, the economy is not uniform throughout the state, with most of the productive economic activity taking place along the urban Front Range corridor.

But overall, state economists believe Colorado is poised for continued success.

“It is an economy that is close to or pretty much at productive capacity,” said Natalie Mullis, chief economist for Colorado Legislative Council staff.

The forecast, however, is a bit uncertain, as several unforeseen factors remain in play, including an increase in automation for jobs, the state’s growing aging population, and the emergence of so-called “shadow markets,” which utilize the internet and apps.

That said, the economy could also do better than economists anticipate: “It’s possible that there is more capacity in the economy and we’re really not truly in a mature capacity … which would mean our forecast is pessimistic,” Mullis said.

Also weighing on the forecast is the rising price of housing costs in Colorado.

“There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for the supply of labor to increase,” said economist Larson Silbaugh, pointing out that the state needs housing options for an increased workforce.

Economists also believe that the cost of doing business in the state will go up, which means prices will be passed on to consumers, which could cause inflation. Either way, the economy will continue to grow, but more likely at a constrained pace.

In terms of impact to state government, revenue that is used for discretionary spending is increasing at a modest 3.4 percent pace in the current fiscal year, but it’s expected to increase at a stronger 6.7 percent rate in the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July, according to an assessment by the governor’s office.

Budget writers were concerned that the greater revenue impact on the current fiscal year would be from declining oil and gas prices. But a new factor to consider is that taxpayers appeared to delay income from investment gains given uncertainty in Washington, D.C. over likely federal tax changes.

“Colorado reached two significant milestones this year – the number one economy in the country and the state’s lowest unemployment on record,” Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Our challenge now is maintaining this success and that requires addressing tight labor and affordable housing conditions.”

Lawmakers may have some additional budget maneuvering ahead of them in next year’s legislative session, though reserves are $52.3 million above the level that would trigger immediate mandatory budget-balancing moves by the governor’s office, according to Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director.

Recent action by the legislature on restructuring a fee that is assessed on hospital bed stays is starting to take form as well. The state is below its spending limit, which means taxpayer refunds are not expected, though they were not expected in the upcoming fiscal year even without the change in law.

Revenue from cash funds will decrease 17.3 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, as the Hospital Provider Fee is restructured to exempt it from contributing to the state’s spending cap, according to the governor’s office.

The move by the legislature also lowered the state spending limit cap by $200 million, so there is some uncertainty in the future over when taxpayer rebates would be triggered.

Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 28, 20178min1371

When it comes to transportation, Donald Trump is much like a casino for a desperate state willing to bet the power bill money to try to win the rent.

While the president was out of the country last week, his advisers rolled out the latest package of ideas for the $1 trillion investment in American infrastructure Trump promised.

Colorado was listening.

Spin doctors here have conditioned us to believe our growing highway needs are like a herd of zombies coming this way. Before they eat us, we might have to take the light rail or ride a bike, because the traffic’s too bad.

Any help from Uncle Sam should feel like a godsend. A jackpot from Washington would be a political bailout Colorado legislators. And when hope runs low, luck is your new best friend. Typical of a casino, Trump reserves the edge.

His transportation plan calls for privatizing government-owned assets to pay for all infrastructure. In exchange for better roads, bridges, pipelines and broadband, we would pay as we go.

Colorado has been there, done that, Mr. President.

The one piece of good news for transportation from the session  was in the omnibus Senate Bill 267. It raises $1.88 billion for transportation — a quarter of it goes to rural counties and 10 percent to transit — over the next 20 years by selling state buildings then paying rent to use them.

With government buildings already off the table, that doesn’t leave Colorado much else of that value to put in Trump’s public-private pot. We have no ports to privatize or a state-owned airport to mortgage. Casa Bonita is already privately owned. State parks and public lands are a whole other kettle of fish.

That leaves highways and that means tolls, Shailen Bhatt, the head of the Colorado Department of Transportation, told me the other day.

“One of the things I’ve heard pretty clearly from the folks in the Springs and Douglas County and other places is that they don’t want a toll on I-25,”  the state highway director told me, referencing some of the most politically conservative parts of the state.

“Well, that’s what the president’s plan pretty much requires.”

The reality check is that this is Trump talking. He would have to pass this plan through Congress, albeit a Republican one.

Imagine paying $20 in tolls each way to drive from Colorado Springs to Denver, or $50 each way to go skiing. Some people could still afford that, but a lot of us would stay home. Poof, traffic jams solved by social engineering.

If we ignore the traffic jams until they get a little worse, it could drive more people onto more mass transit. Poof, traffic jams solved by social engineering.

Transportation is a part of our everyday lives, and one way or another it always gets in our wallets.

In the last session Colorado lawmakers, for the most part, scattered into partisan camps against new taxes on the right versus cuts to existing programs on the left. Toll roads were middle ground. Everybody hated toll roads, right up there with traffic jams.

These weren’t even the soul-sucking institutional toll roads of the Northeast. They were railing on express lanes which run alongside the free lanes.

There are plenty of horror stories about such public-private partnerships, “ill-prepared governments saddling themselves with bad deals,” as the Washington Post called selling public assets for a one-time windfall with long-time payments.

And such deals are not the marvels of the free market that Republicans embrace. They are government-granted monopolies — ya’ know, picking winners and losers.

Trump’s trillion-dollar transportation deal is so laden with these public-private partnership’s that the federal government would put in just $200 billion. Investors and toll-payers cover the rest. He’s playing with the house’s money.

Federal hope equals no hope. Actually, it’s less than no hope.

Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts federal transportation programs by 13 percent. But that’s OK, his people say, because it’s more than offset by his transportation package. Ya’ know, the one with tolls.

For instance, Trump’s budget red-lines the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants that last year dealt $15 million to put an extra lane in each direction of I-25  from Loveland to Fort Collins — toll lanes.

I’m not a gambler, at all. Still, I’ve spent more time in casinos than most people you know. I used to live in a casino town, I covered the national casino industry for awhile and I’m still a regular guest at the $30 buffets in Las Vegas.

There are two things locals tell you over a cocktail in Sin City at 3 a.m. The games were more on-the-level when they were run by the mob instead of Wall Street, and don’t bet what you can’t afford to lose.


Sen. Daniel KaganSen. Daniel KaganMay 19, 20175min1870
Daniel Kagan
Daniel Kagan

As I write, Gov. John Hickenlooper is contemplating whether to call the Legislature into special session in order to pass a comprehensive transportation bill. He should do it, and give the Legislature a chance to resuscitate the transportation proposal that so narrowly failed during the regular session.

Almost everyone agrees that we need to repair and improve Colorado’s transportation infrastructure. Consensus breaks down, however, as soon as you ask, “What improvements shall we make?” and “How shall we pay for all this?” To arrive at a set of fair, acceptable answers to those questions, legislators of both parties and the governor negotiated throughout the 2017 session. The result of those discussions was House Bill 1242, and the plan was to put the bill’s comprehensive transportation infrastructure proposal before the voters this November so the people of Colorado could decide the matter. House Bill 1242 found bipartisan support in both chambers and survived numerous committees, but it failed by one vote at the near-to-last hurdle, in the Senate Finance Committee on April 25, 2017.

I was bitterly disappointed, but continue to believe that though the bill failed, it need not die. I hope the governor will conclude over the next few days that he should call a special session, use his renowned powers of persuasion in a few choice quarters, and get the House Bill 1242 proposal, or something very like it, before the voters.

The most contentious dispute over 1242 was whether the hefty bills should be financed by new taxes or by diverting existing revenue streams toward infrastructure projects and maintenance. Proponents of new taxes argued that was the honest approach, allowing for the pain to be uncamouflaged and openly discussed. Those advocating for use of existing revenues said the pain did not have to be specified in advance, and would not be severe, if only the government would trim its tendency toward frivolous spending.

The 1242 deal opted for new taxes, fully described, and subject to voter approval; the revenue would be raised by increasing the state sales tax rate. We considered, but rejected, alternatives, like instituting per-mile-traveled vehicle user fees, raising the state income tax rate, or doubling the per-gallon gasoline tax. The amount of the proposed state sales tax increase bobbed around, but finally settled at half a cent, taking the sales tax rate from its current 2.9 percent to 3.4 percent, which was projected to raise about half a billion new dollars per year.

Other salient details of the proposal were to scrap late vehicle registration fees, reduce the road safety surcharge from $23 to $9 and issue up to $3.5 billion in bonds to cover capital projects, using primarily the new sales tax revenue to service the debt.

A group I call “The Asphalts” wanted the lion’s share of the new money to go to roads and bridges, whereas environmentalists wanted it to go in large part to mass transit, bike routes and pedestrian-friendly improvements. Local governments, especially the rurals, wanted most of the money to go to them, but Front Range interstate users wanted more to go to the State Highway Fund. We ultimately settled on 35 percent of the new money going to the State Highway Fund, 50 percent going to counties and municipalities, and 15 percent going to a new “Multimodal Transportation Options Fund” to pay for transit, bikes and pedestrians.

The proposal garnered enthusiastic and well-moneyed support from business groups, labor, liberals and conservatives. Significantly, the president of the Senate, speaker of the House, governor of the state of Colorado, chairs of both transportation committees and a majority of both chambers all supported the bill. But it failed, as I said at the outset, because the “no new taxes” argument persuaded three of the five members of the Senate Finance Committee to vote “no” on that balmy April evening.

This need not stand. The voters should be allowed to have their say. Gov. Hickenlooper should call a special session.

Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 14, 20175min910

The Colorado General Assembly adjourned this week, but legislators took their favorite bills to the wire. Meanwhile, a well-known Colorado politician heard his name called from the White House to step into what’s sure to be political chaos of the highest caliber in a wild week in Colorado politics.

These are the stories the staff of Colorado Politics thinks you need to keep in mind after a chaotic week in Denver and D.C.


This week at the Capitol
(Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

1. Session screeches to a stop with little in the tank for transportation

The 120-day legislative session wrapped up Wednesday with transportation receiving a fraction of what legislators vowed to dedicate to it.

Read the full story here.


Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

2. Tough guy or stooge: What kind of FBI chief would Suthers be?

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is said to be on the White House’s short list for the seat left open when President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Colorado leaders sized up his chances and assets to be the nation’s top G-man.

Read the full story here.


Phil Weiser, former University of Colorado Law School dean and senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, has joined the race for Colorado attorney general. (Courtesy photo, Weiser campaign website)

3. Weiser takes inside track in AG’s race with big-name backer

Never heard of Paul Weiser? You know who has heard of him? Endorser and Colorado Democratic kingmaker Ken Salazar, the former AG, U.S. senator and Obama cabinet member. Weiser also is a former Obama adviser.

Read the full story here.


An oil pump jack near Fredrick. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

4. Lights dim for Energy Office after Senate GOP flips the switch

One of the biggest losers of the session was the Colorado Energy Office and state funding for renewable energy programs. Senate Republicans wanted to steer money into such programs as hydropower and nuclear energy, but instead they drove the bill off a cliff.

Read the full story here.


In this April 18, 2017, photo, investigators stand by as debris is removed from a house that was destroyed in a deadly explosion in Firestone, Colo., on April 17. Anadarko Petroleum said Wednesday, April 26, that it operated a well about 200 feet (60 meters) from the house in the town of Firestone. The company didn’t say whether the well was believed to be a factor in the explosion or whether it produced oil, gas or both. (Matthew Jonas/The Daily Times Call via AP)

5. Late-night GOP chat puts up roadblock on oil-and-gas mapping

A late-session bill to provide maps of underground oil-and-gas operations to the public, and especially local land planners, couldn’t make it out of the House after Republicans ran out the clock on it Monday night. The bill stemmed from a fatal house explosion in Firestone on April 17.

Read the full story here.

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Peter MarcusMay 8, 20174min1162

State lawmakers say they have a deal that can mitigate some of the failures from not advancing a full transportation funding measure this year in the legislature.

The proposal would create a 20-year bond program to direct $1.8 billion towards critical infrastructure, including roads and highways.

Senate Bill 267 comes after a centerpiece transportation funding bill – a multi-billion dollar effort that would have raised the state sales tax for roads and highways – failed last month.

A separate effort, Senate Bill 303, would use existing taxes and a $3.5 billion bond program to pay for roads and highways. But the bill faces an uphill battle in a divided legislature and legislative leaders aren’t holding out much hope.

That leaves Senate Bill 267, a dramatic example of compromise that appears poised to cross the finish line.

“It’s fair to both sides. It helps rural Colorado. There’s some things that cause the Democrats to cringe to vote ‘yes’ and there’s things in there that are going to cause Republicans to cringe to vote ‘yes.’ But I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who has been leading talks for Republicans.

The bill received a final 25-10 vote in the Senate on Monday. It now heads to the House for consideration. With three days left in the session, time is critical.

The sticking point in the conversation had been over Medicaid reform. Republicans said the deal that was reached with Democrats included a requirement that co-pays for Medicaid patients be set at the maximum level set by the federal government. Democrats, however, said that was never part of the deal.

A compromise was reached to increase co-pays for Medicaid patients but not up to the federal maximum for outpatient services.

The bill would reverse a budget move this year that reduced the Hospital Provider Fee by $264 million in an effort to balance the budget. The fee is assessed on hospitals to force a match of larger federal health care dollars. With the federal match, hospitals in Colorado stand to lose about $528 million.

It would reclassify the fee on hospital-bed occupancy as an enterprise fund to get out from under the state spending cap, while also lowering the spending cap base by $200 million to protect taxpayer rebates.

Senate Bill 267 would require that at least 25 percent of the money from bonding go toward projects in rural Colorado, with county populations of 50,000 or less.

The measure also would address schools, with $30 million allocated to rural districts over three years. Lawmakers have proposed paying for the school funding by raising marijuana taxes.

It also would aim at avoiding a cut to the Senior Homestead Exemption, while also including a credit for businesses paying taxes on business equipment. Marijuana money would also help with that.

Legislative leaders had made transportation funding a priority this session. It appears they won’t come up with the $9 billion needed to cover the shortfall in transportation funding that the state faces, but legislative leaders believe they will take a large step by the end of Wednesday.

“It does enough for now,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City. “We’ll still probably see measures on the ballot, even if 267 gets to the finish line.”