Legislature focusing on finances

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By Greg Romberg

This week marks the halfway point of the Colorado General Assembly’s 120-day 2010 session. The state’s fiscal woes have dominated the session to this point. The legislature has adopted a package of bills that raised revenues by eliminating a variety of tax exemptions as well as approving a 32-bill package that reduced spending by state agencies for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

The need to pass these two sets of difficult and controversial bills relatively early in the year created a level of partisan discord early in the session that led to late nights and nasty exchanges. The Senate worked for almost 13 hours, until 11:30 p.m., on the tax-exemption bills Feb. 8. At one point, Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg read the Declaration of Independence to Democratic senators and suggested citizen anger over the tax-exemption bills was similar to the feelings of the colonists in the 1770s.

It’s not unusual for tempers to flare while the legislature is in session, but the toughest and most emotional decisions are usually delayed until the closing days of the session. The need to focus on so many difficult financial issues so early in the session led to higher tension levels much earlier in the game than usual.

The next revenue forecast is due March 22. If it is worse than previous projections, additional cuts will have to be made before the fiscal year ends. The forecast could also affect the budget for fiscal 2010-11, which begins in July. The bill to enact next year’s budget is due to be introduced March 29.

After the budget issues, the highest profile accomplishment of the current session has been enactment of a comprehensive revision of laws governing the Public Employees Retirement Association. The bill has passed the legislature and been signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter, but a group of retirees has announced plans to sue the state over provisions that reduce future increases.

Other high-priority issues have included establishing the regulatory framework for the sale and distribution of medical marijuana, increasing the amount of renewable energy that must be included within the portfolio of electric utilities, determining whether convenience stores should be able to sell full-strength beer, and making a variety of transactions by public bodies more easily accessible to the public.

But, as probably should be expected in the middle of the worst economic downturn of most of our lifetimes, the priority issues of the first half of the legislative session related to the budget. And, we should expect the budget to dominate the rest of the session as well.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.