Before the legislative session even started, we all knew that developing and passing Colorado’s budget for fiscal 2011-12 would be a terrible ordeal. After years of cutting the budget, there would have to be additional cuts of around $1 billion. In addition, term limits had created a Joint Budget Committee with little previous experience (only three years on the committee among its six members), and split control of the legislature meant the committee would be equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Finally, the change in governors meant that the budget proposal sent to the JBC last November had come from outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter and new Gov. John Hickenlooper would want to put his own stamp on a budget he would be responsible to oversee.
As the budget committee members worked their way through presentations by all the state agencies and discussions and negotiations, their jobs got harder and more complicated when the governor weighed in with a dramatic proposal that cut spending and required more reserves. When legislative leadership from both the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House got more involved in the budget than seen before, there were even more moving parts, and things became even more difficult.
The budget, or “Long Bill,” as it’s called within the halls of the Capitol, was supposed to have been introduced March 28. As negotiations between JBC members, legislative leadership and governor’s staff dragged on behind closed doors, that deadline came and went. After it was a week late, Capitol reporters tired of the closed meetings and demanded to be let into the meetings. A breakthrough was achieved April 5 with a package that had something for everyone to hate.
The Senate got through the bill in less than a week and ultimately passed the budget 30-5 with strong bipartisan support, even though most everyone objected to parts of the package. The House, while moving even more quickly than the Senate, had more rancorous debate than the Senate, as House Democrats rallied against cuts they found unacceptable. Debate on the budget and its other associated bills in the package dragged on until almost midnight, and debate on some of the bills had to be delayed to allow tempers to cool and civility to return. The budget was ultimately approved 50-14, with most members of both parties voting yes.
Unless and until the economy improves and state revenues increase, development and passage of Colorado’s budget will continue to force many no-win decisions for Gov. Hickenlooper and legislators. But 2011 will go down in history for changing the budget culture by making long-term, ongoing changes to the budget that include reductions in services and increased reserves instead of relying on one-time budget fixes to get through difficult times.
The cuts inflict real pain. We’ll see both reductions in services that will make people wonder if we’ve made the right choices and discussions about whether the taxes we pay for state, local and school services are sufficient to buy the services we want and need. This debate will take place against a backdrop of a revival of conservative thought that saw both the United States and Colorado Houses of Representatives shift from Democratic to Republican control after the 2010 elections. The process of adopting next year’s state budget is largely behind us. Living with its implications and planning for the future it leaves us is just beginning.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations firm.
He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.