Ma­jor over­haul to help ru­ral Colo. could be game changer for leg­isla­tive ses­sion

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Frank and Brian Ea­son

The ru­ral ar­eas of Colorado, where folks feel left be­hind by the state’s eco­nomic re­bound, are the fo­cus of a far­reach­ing bill in­tro­duced Mon­day that’s de­signed to pump mil­lions of dol­lars into hos­pi­tals, roads and class­rooms con­sid­ered to be near the brink of fail­ure.

The mea­sure comes at a crit­i­cal point when law­mak­ers are talk­ing about how to spend a $26.8 bil­lion bud­get and al­lo­cate a po­ten­tial $3.5 bil­lion pot of money for roads — adding an­other mov­ing part that is ex­pected to com­pli­cate and dom­i­nate the re­main­der of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Jerry Son­nen­berg said the bill is nec­es­sary to “sus­tain the econ­omy in ru­ral Colorado.” “We have hos­pi­tals that are clos­ing. We have high­ways that are crum­bling and fall­ing apart. And we have an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that seems to never have enough money to ed­u­cate our kids,” said Son­nen­berg, a Ster­ling rancher whose district cov­ers 11 coun­ties in eastern Colorado.

Se­nate Bill 267 would ded­i­cate $300 mil­lion to road projects in coun­ties with pop­u­la­tions of 50,000 or less, di­rect $400 mil­lion to ru­ral and small school dis­tricts and send mil­lions more to ru­ral hos­pi­tals with large pop­u­la­tions of Med­i­caid pa­tients.

But the leg­is­la­tion rep­re­sents a mas­sive over­haul in how the state spends money — shift­ing money from a statewide trans­porta­tion ac­count to ru­ral

ed­u­ca­tion, re­clas­si­fy­ing the con­tro­ver­sial hospi­tal provider fee, man­dat­ing 2 per­cent across-the-board bud­get cuts next year, low­er­ing the TA­BOR spend­ing cap and us­ing state build­ings as col­lat­eral for a $1.35 bil­lion trans­porta­tion and con­struc­tion bond.

The smor­gas­bord mea­sure, spon­sored by top Repub­li­cans and Democrats, may com­pete with an­other mea­sure en­dorsed by the House and Se­nate lead­ers to ask vot­ers for an in­crease in the sales tax to gen­er­ate $3.5 bil­lion for road projects, and it could shat­ter the care­fully crafted state bud­get bill in­tro­duced only hours ear­lier.

“Is this a tough bill? Yes, it is,” said state Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Mor­gan. “Is it a bill that not ev­ery­body’s go­ing to like? Yep. That’s some­thing we’re go­ing to have to work out.”

How the bill works

The corner­stone of the bill is a re­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the hospi­tal provider fee to re­move it from the state’s con­sti­tu­tional lim­its on spend­ing un­der the Tax­payer’s Bill of Rights.

The move would avoid a pro­posed $264 mil­lion cut in the bud­get bill to the state’s hos­pi­tals that, when com­bined with a match­ing loss of fed­eral grant dol­lars, would have slashed hospi­tal fund­ing by $528 mil­lion next year.

Un­like prior pro­pos­als that have failed to at­tract Repub­li­can sup­port, the bill would lower the TA­BOR cap, po­ten­tially re­strain­ing spend­ing on other key pri­or­i­ties.

Becker said the bud­get bill — which also cuts sev­er­ance tax dis­tri­bu­tions and short­changes schools by about $50 mil­lion — only un­der­scores the need for im­me­di­ate ac­tion.

“All of those things hurt ru­ral Colorado,” said Becker, one of four bill spon­sors. “Some­thing needs to be done, and it needs to be done now. We don’t have time to talk about dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions — I wish we did.”

In ad­di­tion to restor­ing the hospi­tal fund­ing, the bill would free up about $1.35 bil­lion for roads and con­struc­tion projects by sell­ing a le­gal in­ter­est in a num­ber of state fa­cil­i­ties that the state would then lease back from a pri­vate owner for no more than $100 mil­lion an­nu­ally over 20 years.

The bulk of the pro­ceeds, $1.2 bil­lion, would be ear­marked for state high­ways, while a sep­a­rate source of road money, known as the 228 pro­gram, would be redi­rected to fund ru­ral school dis­tricts.

The bill also would seek a 2 per­cent across-the-board spend­ing cut of state agen­cies — a pro­vi­sion that will give Democrats sig­nif­i­cant heart­burn.

Se­nate Demo­cratic leader Lu­cia Guz­man, a Den­ver law­maker and co-spon­sor, ac­knowl­edges the pro­posal is a tough ask.

“This bill is com­ing through be­cause we have agreed to work with Repub­li­cans,” she said. “And a lot of that means we will com­pro­mise.”

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