Efforts by GOP help shape spending
Democratic programs are being targeted by three conservatives.
Months after Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a medical Aid-in-Dying ballot initiative, three conservative lawmakers blocked money to implement the new law on moral grounds.
The objection is one of a handful of examples in which Republican lawmakers used their clout to reject spending in the $26.8 billion budget bill that violated their social conservative beliefs.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration requested permission to spend $44,041 from existing fee collections to meet a requirement in the new law to compile data about the use of life ending, doctor-prescribed medication.
Colorado passed the Aid-in-Dying initiative with 65 percent support in November, and the cost was outlined in the ballot information sent to voters. But three Republican lawmakers on the budget committee voted against the spending, striking it from the budget bill.
“I find that (law) so morally offensive I cannot in any good conscience be voting for using taxpayer dollars for any part of this process,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican budget writer. “There might be a requirement in
the law, but there’s no requirement in the Constitution” to vote for this money.
Other budget requests this year negated by Republican budget writers for largely ideological reasons included $5.1 million in federal dollars for the state’s health care exchange; $745,000 for a biennial student health survey that asks about sex and drugs; $18 million for housing programs for the homeless; and an expansion of a program to provide driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the country illegally.
Taken together, the Republican disapproval of new and existing Democratic programs added a heightened political tension to a budget process that is often celebrated as bipartisan. And the political tint is expected to color the budget debate that begins Wednesday in the state Senate.
“I think politics are certainly evident in the budget,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and budget writer, who later cautioned that he didn’t believe it “played an outsized role.”
GOP in budget process
Part of the political dynamic is how Colorado lawmakers write the state budget.
Most legislative committees are controlled by the party in power, but the Joint Budget Committee features three House members and three senators. And the divided General Assembly makes the committee split with three Republican and three Democratic members.
It takes four votes, or bipartisan agreement, to get an item in the budget. And more importantly, a 3-3 partisan vote rejects a spending item, giving GOP lawmakers the ability to cut off money even for existing programs put in place by Democrats.
Since taking control of the state Senate in 2014, Republicans declined to spend money for a state-backed program to provide contraception to women and the state’s air quality division amid a dispute about a climate-action plan, although in both cases they later reached a compromise.
“This is just another case in point to that maxim that it’s easier to obstruct and it’s harder to lead,” said Pat Steadman, a former Democratic senator and longtime budget writer.
Lundberg, one of the Senate’s most conservative lawmakers and a newcomer to the budget committee, injected political questions most often into the conversation this term.
The Berthoud Republican quizzed Department of Education officials about whether school health professionals referred students to abortion clinics. He complained about increased spending on Medicaid, a health care program for the state’s poorest residents. And he pressed the state’s public health department chief about how parents can exempt their children from an immunization program.
“This is a time and a place to ask the tough questions, you don’t just pass it on,” Lundberg said of his role this year. … Some people will interpret that as being some political game but it isn’t, it’s policy.”
The question about immigrant driver’s licenses once again threatened to blow up the budget bill draft at the 11th hour.
The Division of Motor Vehicles is currently required to reduce operations for the program from three locations to one office after 60,000 appointments, a threshold that is only months away. Democrats wanted to remove the cap and allow the division more leeway to spend the money collected as part of the application fees.
But Lundberg and other Republican budget writers refused to agree to the change because they didn’t support the Democratic-designed program in the first place.
“There were certain things like that we were funding that we frankly object to,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican and the budget chairman.
In the end, the budget writers struck a deal to make the trigger 60,000 first-time applicants, and exempt renewals — a move that delays office closures until 2018.
Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, suggested he noticed a difference this year but argued the driver’s license issue illustrated the committee’s willingness to compromise.
“I think we have had issues that came to 3-3 votes in the past, and we may have had a few more (this year),” he said. “But when you think about it in the context of how many votes we actually take on the budget, I don’t really see a huge change in that process.”
Tension over budget
At other points, the conservative push strained the budget-writing process.
Democratic members expressed deep frustration at the GOP protest against the medical Aid-in-Dying request, suggesting that the move violated voter intent. They also noted that lawmakers implement marijuana-related legislation each year, despite the fact that many objected to its legalization.
“There are other issues that I have personally voted against that have been on the ballot,” retorted Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, the committee vice-chairwoman. “But I feel my role as a legislator is to implement what the people voted for.”
But Senate President Kevin Grantham, a former budget writer, applauded the Republican members for holding the line.
“Everyone goes in there and does it according to his own conscience,” the Cañon City Republican said.