Kopp: Gov. sinks bipartisan effort to create rainy-day fund

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By AJ Vicens

State Sen. Mike Kopp, R-South Jeffco, said a bipartisan effort to create a state “rainy-day fund” to prepare for an imminent recession was torpedoed by the governor’s office last week.

But a Democrat who participated in the negotiations says that although Kopp and his Republican colleagues were “thinking in the right direction,” the deal was based on incomplete information, and the governor made the right call.

The deal was engineered by Kopp and fellow Sens. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, Josh Penry, R-Fruita, Scott Renfroe R-Eaton, Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, and Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver. It would have made “modest” cuts — according to Kopp — in some of the line items in the state budget.

“We were making very modest, reasoned cuts to a whole wide array of spending items,” Kopp said April 4. “A lot of the cuts were decreases to the amount of increases (in next year’s budget).”

Kopp said the budget debate in the House was very contentious, so he approached Groff and asked to work out the deal. Groff was receptive, so Kopp and the other Republicans found $35 million to $40 million in cuts that could be diverted to a rainy-day fund.

The GOP’s proposed cuts were taken to Groff’s office, and the two sides came to an agreement on about $15 million in reductions. Kopp said he then went to the Joint Budget Committee to have amendments drawn up to reflect the cuts, and then went home for the day.

Kopp said the cuts were mostly to slow the growth of programs or departments, not reductions in existing funding levels. For example, Kopp said that a $2 million line item to fund a subsidy for homeowners to install solar panels was cut to $1 million under the negotiated plan.

“You’re not going to have poor people installing solar panels on their house,” Kopp said. “This is truly a subsidy for rich people. We just asked for half of it. That would have been the first million-dollar deposit in the rainy-day fund.”

Kopp said he arrived the next morning “only to find out that the governor’s office pulled the plug and really gutted the whole proposal and made it impossible for Senate Democrats to go along with the plan that we had all agreed to.”

Multiple messages left for Gov. Bill Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, were not returned. A message left for Groff also was not returned.

Shaffer acknowledges that he participated in the negotiations but thinks the proposed cuts were suggested without the benefit of testimony heard by the Joint Budget Committee.

“I think we had some good conversations, and I really do appreciate (Kopp’s) efforts in particular,” Shaffer said. “He was really excited that we were working in a bipartisan, good-faith manner to find common ground there.”

“What was difficult, when we were going through each of the proposed cuts they were suggesting — we didn’t always understand the ramifications,” Shaffer added.

As an example, Shaffer cited a $1 million cut proposed in the “flexible fund for the Department of Corrections.” That cut — out of a $2 million line item — turned out to be funds to pay private prisons, and if the cut were made, the state would have had to pay more in the long run.

“It was pretty difficult to try to make informed decisions about cuts to the budget without having all the information at our disposal,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer said he doesn’t know why the deal was killed. He said he went with Kopp and Renfroe to the Joint Budget Committee offices to work on the amendments, and when he returned to Groff’s office two hours later, he was “told we weren’t going to go forward with it.”

The day after the deal was killed, Ritter announced his own version of the rainy-day fund based on revenues from federal mineral lease revenues. The money in that fund will be dedicated to higher education and “local communities most impacted by oil and gas drilling,” according to a statement from the governor’s office April 3.

Kopp said the governor’s approach marks a completely different model for a rainy-day fund, and that the bipartisan effort was more flexible and not just tied to higher education.

“We were trying to build a rainy-day fund out of cuts; they are trying to build a rainy-day fund that should only affect higher education,” Kopp said. “We were going to do something that the Congress hasn’t been able to do: work in a bipartisan manner. The ball was dropped on this one.”

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.