In home stretch, legislative session as bumpy as a Colorado roadway
Author: John Tomasic - April 25, 2017 - Updated: April 25, 2017
Kevin Grantham sat deep in his chair, his left foot, shod in a large cowboy boot, resting on his right knee, the Capitol press corps arrayed in front of him brought by text messages sent out near 10:00 p.m. the night before.
It was Thursday morning, just two-and-a-half weeks ahead of the end of the legislative session, and the state Senate president was explaining that three members of his Republican caucus planned in committee the following week to kill the legislative centerpiece transportation bill he had sponsored with Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran, that there was little he could do about it, and that another Republican legislative centerpiece — a bill that would balance the session’s lopsided budget — was on life support.
“I don’t know what this looks like over the next five days. I really don’t,” Grantham said about the transportation bill. “No matter how you slice it, this comes down to a sales tax increase. I’m not sure how many ornaments we can hang on this tree that will make that not as important as it is.”
The measure, House Bill 1242, aims to secure $3.5 billion in bonds, but take away the sales tax and the bill falls apart. Grantham said the ideas being batted around the Capitol to find other sources of revenue are shop-worn proposals that appeal to Democrats or Republicans but not both.
The three Finance Committee Republicans opposed to the bill at press time are Sen. Owen Hill from Colorado Springs, Tim Neville from Littleton and Jack Tate from Centennial.
“I’ve known these guys for a long time. This is at their core,” Grantham said, dismissing theories that election politics are playing a role in their opposition. “I knew they were going to be tough sells from the beginning.”
Reporters wanted to know why Grantham couldn’t simply assign the bill to a committee in which at least one Republican member, like bill co-sponsor Randy Baumgardner, would vote with committee Democrats to push the bill to the Senate floor. Once on the floor, at the least the two Republican sponsors of the bill — Baumgardner and Grantham — and all of the Democrats would join forces to send it to the governor’s desk.
“Yes, I assign committees,” Grantham explained. “But the bill has been assigned. It was forwarded to the Finance Committee. That’s the proper routing for the bill …
“I’m not going to game the system,” he said. “It’s got to hit the proper routing and it’s got to play by the rules like any other bill.
“So, what does that mean for the bill? Errr-yew,” Grantham said, making a face. “Maybe not good things — but I want [the bill] to be legitimate when it comes out the other end.”
“Given that we worked on it for five months and now we’ve got five days, this is difficult,” he said.
Do you think it’s appropriate, one of the reporters asked, that a small minority of lawmakers can thwart the will of the majority?
“It’s the beauty of the system,” Grantham said. “I believe that because I sat for four years as a member of the minority.”
Jerry needs a number
The other wobbling legislative centerpiece proposal at press time was Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg’s Senate Bill 267, which aims to raise money for transportation and for hospitals — which is key because the current budget, which has already passed both chambers, slashes the hospital budget by $500 million — a sum that threatens to cut hospital programs around the state and to shutter hospitals in rural Colorado over the next year or so.
Sonnenberg’s bill would reclassify the state’s hospital provider fee, removing it from the general fund so more tax money could pour in under the state spending cap. So Sonnenberg, and Republicans generally, want to lower the cap to keep government spending from escalating and to make sure some of the savings go back to taxpayers.
Democrats see the bill as long-overdue in its general sweep but flawed, even schizophrenic, in its details. They point out that the bill, with one hand, borrows money while, with the other, cuts state revenues.
“I have come more than halfway and that ain’t enough, Sonnenberg said at the Thursday morning meeting. “I was interested in saving hospitals and they’re interested in keeping more taxpayer dollars. I don’t know where this goes from here.
“They have made no offer,” Sonnenberg said. “They have not given me a number.”
Reporters asked whom Sonnenberg was negotiating with, exactly, his Democratic co-sponsor in the Senate, Minority Leader Lucia Guzman from Denver, or House Democratic leadership, Speaker Duran and Majority Leader KC Becker from Boulder?
Sonnenberg paused. “Um, I gotta think they’re having conversations, doing some talking together,” he said. “I don’t know …
“If we’re not going to have negotiations, there’s no point in having a damn bill,” he said.
Directly after Grantham’s meeting wrapped, Guzman met with reporters to say that the budget was unacceptable the way it stood. “We will not balance the state budget on the backs of the elderly and kids,” she said. “We have to pass the hospital provider fee bill. We just have to — otherwise rural communities are going to lose their hospital care.”
“I believe there is a way to come up with a different type of compromise, a different kind of dollar-lowering [mechanism],” she said. “I simply haven’t been able to offer that to [Sonnenberg] because he has been meeting with others.”
She explained that Sonnenberg’s current offer would add too little revenue and so would put lawmakers right back at the negotiating table to make the same arguments the following year. She said she was the Democrat best suited to strike an agreement with Sonnenberg.
“There are ways to come together … There are numbers I will go down to,” she said. “I’d like to discuss that with Senator Sonnenberg. I have a couple options that I think would really move us to a better place.”
Guzman said she was left out of the recent meeting that apparently rattled Sonnenberg. She hinted that she thought it was positioning at the Capitol — strategic gamesmanship perhaps or even attention-seeking — that was threatening to derail the bill.
“I had politically energized communication with my House colleagues in the wee hours of the morning,” she said. “I had said this is my bill. As long as we are working it in the Senate, which is where it is, let us work this bill,” she said.
It’s difficult to imagine that the budget committee members this session would really have proposed cutting $500 million from hospitals if they didn’t believe Sonnenberg’s bill would pass and refill the money.
Grantham said that’s why Democrats should get busy and pass the bill.
“Whose idea was this initially to cut the hospital [budgets]?” he asked. “The governor’s!” he said. “Who proposed it over in the JBC? Was it [Colorado Springs Republican] Kent Lambert? Was it [Berthoud Republican] Kevin Lundberg? No, it was [Dillon Democrat] Millie Hamner! Who forwarded it? Who promoted it? And now they want to hold onto that, what they agreed to across the street [in committee], in the hopes that some magical solution will come in from Senate Bill 267, which they won’t even move on. They could make this go away and fix all this. Great, let’s do it.”
In a meeting with reporters later in the day, Hamner wouldn’t say what the joint budget committee could do with the budget if the bills fail to pass.
House Speaker Duran unrolled a long list of groups from around the state that have supported the transportation bill. And she said House leaders are dedicated to continuing conversations with Sonnenberg on his hospital provider fee bill.
“We’re more than willing to stay at the table and negotiate, but it’s give and take — and where they’re at right now is not responsible to the people of Colorado,” Duran said.
“The saddest things about this is that we’re coming forward so that we don’t leave communities behind. You know which communities are most likely to be left behind if we don’t come forward with a statewide solution? It’s going to be those rural communities,” Duran said, referring to communities in Republican districts like Sonnenberg’s sprawling eastern plains district.
If the two bills fail, supporters say Colorado industries that count on moving people and goods will suffer — which is to say, almost all of the state’s industries. They note, too, that Coloradans on Medicare and Medicaid will also suffer, as will the hospitals that serve those Coloradans, the people employed by those hospitals and the communities in which those hospitals and the health care jobs they provide are located.
Leaders on all sides at the Legislature could come out of this session badly bruised.
Democrats will put the session’s failures on Grantham for his inability to control his caucus; they’ll point to the Republicans on the Senate committee still prepared at press time to kill the transportation bill; and they’ll spotlight the contradictions of Sonnenberg’s bill.
But, as Grantham pointed out, the budget with its enormous hospital cuts and its anemic transportation funding was largely shaped by Democrats. News headlines on the session, should it end the way it seemed to be headed Thursday, will lament gridlock.
Republicans are the minority party at the Capitol. It is easy to imagine the narrative on some level will hold that Hickenlooper and Duran presided over dealmaking that ended in a $500 million cut to hospitals, no transportation-funding proposal to hand off to that long list of influential parties Duran unrolled at the press meeting, and a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory to reclassify the budget-bedeviling hospital provider fee, which Democrats at the Capitol have talked about for years as a top priority.
Democratic leaders have depended this session to a large degree on Grantham’s particular kind of leadership in order to move their agenda.
By almost all accounts, he has dealt openly and fairly with them. He worked to see things from their point of view and sought to problem solve.
It’s the same approach he is taking with his caucus. On Thursday morning, he sympathetically explained why Republican senators were planning to vote against his transportation bill and explained why he was refusing to use parliamentary tactics or political strong-arming to undercut them.
Democratic leaders are saying they’re determined to strike a deal with Sonnenberg. It’s likely Guzman is negotiating with him and that early in the week a deal will have been announced.
“The hospital provider fee fix serves the best interest of all Coloradans,” Jacque Montgomery, Gov. Hickenlooper’s spokesman said Thursday in a statement. “We continue to work collaboratively through the legislative process with all stakeholders and remain hopeful we will find agreement.”