BREAKING: GOP Special Session Shenanigans Confirmed

UPDATE: You may have noticed that the deadline dates listed in the draft bill in question (below) erroneously state 2017 as the coming legislative year. Since this legislation was filed last week, it’s obviously intended for the 2018 legislative session.

Thus illustrating again that errors, you know, happen. And then we fix them.


As we reported earlier today, Gov. John Hickenlooper has called a special session of the Colorado General Assembly to convene early next month for the purpose of remedying a drafting error in Senate Bill 17-267: the large-scale bipartisan fiscal bill that averted large cuts to the budget this year, and in particular protected rural hospitals from possible closure. Although this language fix would save Denver RTD and the metro Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SFCD) from millions of dollars in unexpected cuts due to marijuana tax revenue they would not receive, Republicans appear to be rallying against making the fix–preferring instead to blast Hickenlooper for the “waste” of calling a special session to deal with the problem.

But we just found out something very important. Republicans already know about the problem.

This is an excerpt from a draft bill filed by GOP Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg on September 5th. This draft legislation appears to accomplish the aim of the special session–ensuring that special taxing districts like RTD and SFCD can continue to levy their marijuana sales taxes even after the legislature exempted marijuana from the state’s regular sales tax:

Because state law specifies that the regional transportation district (RTD), the scientific and cultural facilities district (SCFD), and a health services district (HSD) may levy sales tax only on transactions upon which the state levies sales tax “pursuant to the provisions of article 26 of title 29. C.R.S.”, the exemption of retail marijuana sales from the general state sales tax had the unintended consequence of exempting such sales from RTD, SCFD, and HSD sales taxes even though the state continues to levy the retail marijuana sales tax pursuant to article 28.8. of title 39, C.R.S. In addition, other statutes that authorize certain special districts and authorities to levy sales taxes only upon transactions upon which the state levies sales tax but do not specifically reference article 26 are sufficiently ambiguous that they could also be interpreted to no longer authorize those special districts to levy sales tax on retail marijuana sales.

The bill clarifies that retail marijuana sales are subject to RTD, SCFD, and HSD sales taxes as well as other potentially affected special district and authority sales taxes.

Folks, this is the objective of the special session–to correct this exact error, and ensure these monies continue to flow to these special tax districts. To fail to pass this fix bill as quickly as possible will mean lost revenue for these entities. That’s why Gov. Hickenlooper called the special session.

Obviously, the fact that Republicans not only knew about this problem, but had already filed a draft bill for the 2018 legislation to address the problem, severely undercuts their feigned outrage over being called back to address it sooner–and it means they should have no problem supporting the bill whenever they get it. We have no idea how they intend to respond to the charge of blatant hypocrisy and political posturing here, but it’s one of the more egregious cases we’ve seen in recent memory.

In fact, this is exactly the kind of nonsense that makes the voting public hate politics.

AFP: All Over The Map On Hospital Provider Fee Follies

As the Denver Post’s Brian Eason reports, Gov. John Hickenlooper is calling state lawmakers back next month for a narrowly-focused special session of the legislature–the purpose being to fix an error in a key piece of legislation passed this year that is resulting in unexpected budget cuts to specific programs:

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday called lawmakers back to the Capitol to fix a bill-drafting error that has been costing Denver-based institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in marijuana revenue.

The special session set to start Oct. 2 will be the first in five years for Hickenlooper and the General Assembly, an extraordinary step for a governor who typically has deferred to lawmakers on legislative matters during his two terms.

“After hearing about the potential impact on citizens around the state, it is clear that this problem is best solved as soon as possible,” Hickenlooper said in a statement announcing his executive order, capping a day of speculation about his plans.

The error in question affects the bipartisan hospital provider fee and budget fix legislation Senate Bill 17-267, this year’s hard-won compromise bill hammered out between Democrats and Republicans led by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg that averted much larger and more painful budget cuts. Specifically, the mistake eliminated marijuana tax funding for Denver RTD and the metro area’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), along with a few other organizations, while intending to increase marijuana tax revenue–meaning an error completely counter to the bill’s intentions.

But as you might have expected, Republicans and conservative activists are howling over the special session and threatening to not cooperate–including Sen. Sonnenberg and Rep. Jon Becker, the two primary GOP sponsors of SB-267:

Intransigence that is outraging Democrats who worked with them:

As for the state’s biggest conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity-Colorado? Don’t bother. They’re all over the map. During the legislative session, AFP claimed to be “working with” Sen. Sonnenberg on SB-267, ostensibly to ensure it wasn’t too offensive to them. The organization was listed in lobbying disclosure forms as “monitoring” SB-267, not opposing, while then-AFP state director Michael Fields taunted Democrats about supposed GOP willingness to move forward:

And the group’s 2017 Colorado legislative scorecard–the first version, anyway–was a little confusing, but appeared to consider a “yes” SB-267 vote a good thing:


Biz Lobby Talks Transportation Initiative, Hard Right Freaks

As Denver Post business correspondent Aldo Svaldi reports, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is moving to resurrect of the major failed priorities from this year’s legislative session–a measure asking voters for more revenue to deal with the growing backlog of badly needed transportation projects all over the state of Colorado:

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce will pursue a ballot initiative next year to boost state transportation funding after the state legislature failed to send voters a measure to raise $3.5 billion for roads and transit this year…

Brough, in an interview after the announcement, said specifics are still being worked on with several other groups, but she hinted that the size and scope of the hard-fought but failed House Bill 1242 offers a starting point.

…The bill, sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham, sought to increase the statewide sales tax to 3.52 percent from 2.9 percent for 20 years to raise $3.5 billion for transportation funding.

But Senate conservatives, opposed in principle to tax increases and state spending priorities, contributed to the bill’s demise late in the session, ending what backers had hailed as a grand bargain between Republicans and Democrats to address a critical need.

Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham.

The state’s two principal right-wing ideological hard line groups, Americans for Prosperity-Colorado and the Independence Institute–who were chiefly responsible for killing the bipartisan “grand bargain” between Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran and GOP Senate President Kevin Grantham–reacted with predictable anger:

But we’ll be very interested in seeing what happens with this initiative, since it could take a major argument from local conservatives–that Medicaid and other “social spending” must be cut to pay for infrastructure upgrades everyone agrees are needed–off the table. The zero-sum paradigm forced on the state by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) is an end unto itself for the ideological “starve the beast” right, and they have no interest in upholding the part of the law that allows voters to grow the proverbial pie if they choose.

But when even conservative Republicans like Kevin Grantham agree that something has to be done–and not on the backs of the sick and poor–there is legitimate reason to keep trying.

Beware the Big-Number Boogeyman

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Colorado’s total state budget is $29 billion. That’s right; billion with a “B.” That’s a big number. It’s bigger this year than it was two years ago.

All too often, Colorado’s most extreme conservatives use these oversimplified statements as if they are some kind of thunderclap in the raging debate over our state’s finances. It’s a particular line of attack I call the “Big-Number Boogeyman” argument.

The Big-Number Boogeyman’s tactic is cynical, yet effective. He throws around big numbers most of us can’t relate to and points out how the budget keeps growing. He is quick to dismiss those advocating for more public investment as hopelessly greedy liberals who can’t prioritize.

Last week, the Colorado Springs Gazette took a page out of the Big-Number Boogeyman’s handbook.

In an editorial, it erroneously depicted a shrinking K-12 budget as a direct consequence of the state’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage for those with incomes at 133 percent of the federal poverty line ($16,000/year).

To make its argument, the Gazette relied on the wrong facts. Instead of looking at the $11 billion general fund, it used Colorado’s $29 billion total state budget (all funds).

(If you’re starting to think like the Boogeyman and his followers, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wow, $11 billion is a big number.” Before I lose you, divide that $11 billion by our population. It accounts to a mere $2,000 for every man, woman, and child.)

Remove the Big-Number Boogeyman bias and here’s what’s left: It may seem like Medicaid’s share of the budget is exploding, but that’s because Medicaid expansion is funded by a federal government match. When you look at the general fund — the true measure of where our tax dollars are going — you see percentages for Medicaid have remained virtually unchanged over the last five years.

Based on its incorrect theory, the Gazette then declared a solution to the problem (one it created by using out-of-context numbers): If we want higher paid teachers, kick people off Medicaid. Fiscal crisis solved!

The Big-Number Boogeyman and his henchmen went wild.

“$29 billion and we can’t find money for roads and schools?”
“We just need to prioritize better!”
“The budget grows bigger every year. How much more do you want?”


At Least He’s Not Your Governor

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

For the last few years under ultra-conservative Gov. Sam Brownback, our neighbors in Kansas have been part of an experiment to see what happens if you do what conservative lawmakers from coast to coast say they want: cut taxes, cut them a lot, and then keep cutting in hope that if you cut taxes enough eventually more money will flow into state coffers to pay for the stuff that matters.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, it didn’t work:

The grand economic experiment on the prairie has ended.

Kansas’ Republican-held Legislature delivered a stunning defeat to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday, voting to demolish his massive tax cut that led to massive budget shortfalls and sent Kansas into a political tailspin.

It was a Waterloo moment for the conservative second-term governor, who refused to back down from the tea-party-inspired plan he signed in 2012 to promote business growth in the state.

After the Legislature passed a bill Tuesday morning, just after midnight, to roll back most of Brownback’s tax agenda, the governor exercised his veto power to kill it. But a coalition of Republicans and Democrats united Tuesday night to override the veto with a two-third’s majority in both chambers.

You see, rather than fulfilling the long-held conservative axiom that cutting taxes increases overall tax revenue by stimulating economic growth, in Kansas the Brownback tax cuts plunged the state into a fully avoidable fiscal crisis. Instead of growing revenues, the state faced an almost $900 million deficit for the coming fiscal year–a hard reality that forced Republican lawmakers to take action counter to their ideological convictions.

But Gov. Brownback, more or less by himself, refuses to concede he was in the wrong:

“The state has taken a big step backwards,” Brownback said. “I think it’s the wrong philosophy. I just think this is the wrong way for us to go.”

…Brownback said a lot of people mistakenly made the override votes on tax policy about the governor himself.

“But it’s not about me. It’s about Kansas. It’s about the future of the state. It’s about which way we want to go. Do we want to be a high-tax, low-growth or no-growth state? Or a pro-growth state?” Brownback said.

In the end, Kansas decided it wants to be a functional state. It seems to us there is no more important foundation for growth. The “experiment” of Kansas slashing taxes for the sake of slashing taxes is now a cautionary tale, showing again how the excesses of theoretical ideology can prove destructive in the real world.

“Waffler Brauchler” Can’t Take The Heat

George Brauchler.

The Colorado Independent reports on the fallout from the passage this year of Senate Bill 17-267, the hard-fought compromise to save rural hospitals and give the state budget a small bit of breathing room through the reclassification of the state’s Hospital Provider Fee program to exempt it from revenue limits imposed by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). Though the deal is done, among Republicans the finger-pointing continues:

In the days after the end of the latest legislative session, a narrative that emerged was one of bipartisanship and compromise.

But “compromise” can sometimes be a dirty word, especially when it comes to party primaries, plenty of which could take place in 2018. Some potential challenges follow a high-stakes deal lawmakers passed to reclassify the state’s hospital provider fee so it is exempt from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, commonly known as TABOR…

Now, with the session over, election season soon begins. And one looming question will be whether TABOR hardliners will try to make those Republicans who voted for the plan pay for what they did.

The Colorado Union of Taxpayers, for one, has thrown down the gauntlet.

“As Rush Limbaugh said after Obamacare repeal passed, ‘there’s no reason to vote for Republicans,’ and that applies to the Colorado Republican Party as well,” CUT’s president, Greg Golyansky told The Colorado Independent.

We noted last week the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara’s bitter denunciation of Republicans who supported the Hospital Provider Fee fix, calling out GOP leadership by name and claiming the deal is the “largest ‘grand betrayal’ from Republicans I have ever witnessed in my more than 25 years in Colorado politics.” Much like the aftermath of 2005’s bipartisan Referendum C campaign to give the state a “time out” from TABOR limits, Caldara finds himself not just on the losing side, but at odds with elected GOP leadership in Colorado.

With that said, Caldara’s rage does appear to have tripped up at least one Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate, in a way eerily similar to how Referendum C caused terminal problems for GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez in 2005-06:

One of the Republican candidates who said he would sign the law was Arapahoe County-area District Attorney George Brauchler. He would do it, he said that day, but grudgingly.

“I think the alternative is too devastating for the rural community and I think we’re sort of in a place now where we’ve got to take this the way it’s at,” he said. “My regret is that because of a lack of leadership and political pressure from an office that could have exerted both we’re at a place where we’re going to have to accept not the best outcome here. But I think we have to do it for rural Colorado and for that I support it.”

Post-Caldara freakout, George Brauchler has pulled a full-on “Both Ways Bob.”

UPDATE: Since this story was posted, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who is running for governor as a Republican, said after thinking about it more he would not have signed the law. He said he believes it is unconstitutional. He said he would find the money to save rural hospitals elsewhere in the budget. He said he was a reluctant supporter at best on the day the compromise passed. “Certainly I’ve changed my position on signing it, but the distance between those positions isn’t that dramatic,” he said. [Pols emphasis]

Wait a minute–the “distance” between taking action to prevent something “devastating for the rural community” and not taking that action…”isn’t that dramatic?” For the communities that could have seen their hospitals close, it would be pretty damned dramatic. Given what other Republicans have said about the urgency of the problem, like Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Brauchler’s dismissal of his own flip-flop on the Hospital Provider Fee fix is nonsensical in the extreme.

And he’s given his primary opponents the perfect wedge — one that GOP primary voters have smelled before.

World’s Smallest Violin Plays For Legislative Loser Jon Caldara

Jon Caldara.

Media analysis of the 2017 Colorado legislative session, which ended last Wednesday, has given both parties a lot of credit for hammering out a deal to make a small but important bookkeeping change to the state’s Hospital Provider Fee program–reclassifying HPDF revenue is an “enterprise” to free it (and by extension the state budget) from revenue caps imposed by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

The deal was not without cost to Democrats, who made painful concessions like hiking Medicaid copays and giving Republicans a long-sought business property tax break, but the freeing of hundreds of millions of dollars under the TABOR revenue limit is a big help now and in the future. Colorado’s Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman signed off on the legality of the move, and today there is lots of bipartisan credit being taken.

Among those not happy with the deal include Colorado’s foremost far-right ideologue, the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara–writing a petulant op-ed titled “The grand betrayal of Colorado Senate Republicans” for this weekend’s Denver Post:

In 2005, then soon-to-be-term-limited Gov. Bill Owens broke party lines and joined Democrats to craft and sell [Referendum C]. For that the outgoing guv was rewarded gobs of “really maturing in office” praise from the media, this newspaper especially, and earned lots of “good will” from the business interests supporting the “yes” vote, with whom he’d be fishing for private-sector work soon enough.

The small-government party faithful were understandably livid. To this day in many corners the name Bill Owens elicits the same response as the name Dick Nixon.

What Republicans just did on Senate Bill 267 makes Owens look like Barry Goldwater.

The “grand compromise” of SB 267, something worse than Ref C and Ref D and without a public vote, is the largest “grand betrayal” from Republicans I have ever witnessed in my more than 25 years in Colorado politics. And that says a lot.

As our long-time readers know, Caldara is nothing if not devoted to over-the-top rhetoric. Caldara blamed “dildo art” displays for the state’s budget problems back in 2005, claimed that Obamacare would kill his child, exploited disabled children in campaign ads, and crassly used the 2013 Front Range floods to squeak out of voter fraud charges related to another stunt. Caldara’s loss in the Referendum C fight began a slow but steady erosion of TABOR’s chokehold on the state budget, as courts have applied TABOR’s literal wording to mitigate some of the most onerous restrictions–and now fixing the Hospital Provider Fee with backing from the state’s GOP attorney general.

And folks, Jon Caldara is so mad:

You might want to think twice before bringing Senate President Kevin Grantham or Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg with you to haggle over your car purchase…

I am left wondering why Grantham, who pronounced this raiding of the Hospital Provider Fee/tax dead on arrival at the beginning of the session in multiple outlets, including on my Colorado Public Television program, and to my face privately at least twice, “matured” on the issue.

What he and eight other Republican senators did fully earns them the title of “politician.”

Eight others, not seven? Owen Hill voted for SB 267 in committee, but went all Pontius Pilate on the Senate floor and voted against, something I’m guessing will come up in his primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn.

It should be noted that the Independence Institute’s influence has been on the wane at the Colorado Capitol for several years, in significant part due to the expansion of national conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. AFP’s slicker, better-funded influence has grown as Caldara’s has flagged, and Caldara’s very public battle with Rocky Mountain Gun Owners in 2015 over a “compromise” bill to increase but not fully repeal gun magazine limits was an unsuccessful mistake that cost Caldara further support on the right.

How many more losses does Jon Caldara get before the donors who keep his organization going put him out to pasture? If it’s a simple return-on-investment question, there’s a pretty good argument that it should have already happened.

Lawmakers Announce For-Reals Hospital Provider Fee Fix

Sausage factory. Don’t look inside unless you want to lose your appetite.

As the Colorado Independent’s Marianne Goodland reports, the long-sought bipartisan deal to fix a vexing budgetary problem in Colorado that would free up hundreds of millions of dollars, reclassifying the state’s Hospital Provider Fee program to no longer count against revenue limits under the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), is apparently close to fruition.

This week, negotiations between the bill’s sponsors became very tense over a provision hiking Medicaid co-pays for prescriptions and both inpatient and outpatient visits. Democrats led by House Majority Leader K.C. Becker and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman insisted they never agreed to that, and would not–while co-sponsoring Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg demanded that the copays increase as part of the deal.

As of today, as Goodland reports, Republicans appear to have successfully extracted their pound of flesh:

Two House lawmakers and two Senate leaders have reached bipartisan agreement on a high-stakes and hard-fought state finance deal that fell apart as many times as it came together.

The bill, which centers around reclassifying the state’s hospital provider fee into a government-owned enterprise, seeks to reverse a $264 million cut to hospitals statewide, which was part of the $26.8 billion budget sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper Wednesday. With just five working days left in the 2017 session, lawmakers fear what would happen to hospitals if an agreement couldn’t be reached.

If approved, the measure, “Sustainability of Rural Colorado,” would save close to a dozen rural hospitals, fund rural schools, give small businesses a break on business personal property taxes, and set aside money for long overdue transportation projects. But perhaps its most sought-after achievement — at least by Democrats — lies in reclassifying the hospital provider fee. The fee helps cover the cost of medical care for low-income Coloradans and is matched by federal dollars. Reclassifying it moves roughly $600 million to $700 million out from beneath state constitutionally-mandated revenue limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

So that’s the good news–a long-sought fix for the Hospital Provider Fee that prevents its growth from impacting other areas of the budget. But here’s what Republicans got in return:

The last major sticking point was whether to require Medicaid recipients to pay a little more for prescriptions and outpatient care. Democratic Rep. Becker of Boulder indicated that was a non-starter for her caucus, while Republican Sonnenberg of Sterling said it was not something he would back away from.

Under the agreement, the cost for prescriptions for Medicaid recipients would double from $1 to $2; outpatient copays would also double from $2 to $4. Both may vary slightly based on family income. A previous agreement also called for patients to pay more for daily inpatient hospital stays, but to appease Democrats, that provision was nixed…

What remains unchanged: The $200 million reduction in the state’s TABOR limits, currently set at about $13.3 billion. The reduction is meant to counterbalance the removal of provider fee revenues – about $656 million in 2017-18 – from the state’s revenue limit into a government-owned enterprise. TABOR allows for enterprises. Among the largest: college tuition , which pays for college costs, and fees paid at state parks, which pay for the operations of those parks.

Also unchanged: State agencies would be required for the 2018-19 fiscal year to submit budgets to the governor’s budget office showing a 2 percent across-the-board cut.

In addition, the deal includes a small business property tax cut that Republicans have wanted for some time. The added burden on Medicaid patients is the highest-profile “victory” that Republicans can claim in this deal–and given Sonnenberg’s unwillingness to compromise over costs that sound trivial to, well, everyone but poor folks on Medicaid, they can’t claim anything like the moral high ground. Other purely ideological “victories” like across-the-board cuts do nothing good politically for Republicans outside their own base voters.

As for Democrats, they accomplished significantly more of their own long-standing objectives despite some painful concessions. Whatever the momentary sticking points were in the negotiations, Republican backs were against the wall. The peril of rural conservative Republican lawmakers with hospitals in their districts that may have closed without this deal, more than any other factor, is what kept Sen. Sonnenberg and Rep. Jon Becker at the bargaining table.

In short, this deal is probably as good as you’re going to get with right-wing activist group Americans For Prosperity calling the shots in the Republican-controlled Colorado Senate. With everything weighed in the balance, Democrats got some long-sought things accomplished–and the hospitals in Jerry Sonnenberg’s district that will stay open constitute an objectively good outcome.

If you want a better deal, your next step is the 2018 elections.

Republicans Kill Transportation Funding Bill

No road repairs for you!

As John Frank reports for the Denver Post:

A bipartisan measure backed by Colorado’s top lawmakers to seek a sales tax hike for transportation reached the end of the road Tuesday.

A state Senate panel defeated the proposal to pump $3.5 billion into improving the state’s highways along party-lines with the three Republican members citing ideological opposition to increasing taxes.

The outcome became clear a week earlier when the Senate’s bill sponsors hastily announced an impasse in the negotiations on the term’s No. 1 priority, a major setback for legislative leaders and Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“This is a statewide solution bill,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City. “Yes it contains things both sides may cringe at. … But we must start looking at some of these things.”…

Most supporters urged the Senate Finance Committee to allow the measure to reach the Senate floor, where it has the votes to pass, and emphasized the need to take action. [Pols emphasis]

But the bulk of opponents criticized the tax hike and suggested lawmakers cut spending elsewhere to prioritize money for transportation, suggesting everything from reductions in spending on libraries to selling an airplane used by the governor.

As Frank notes, there were enough votes in the Senate as a whole to get this transportation legislation out of the Upper Chamber and onto the Governor’s desk…but three partisan Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee refused to allow the bill to advance (despite support from Senate President Kevin Grantham). Senators Tim Neville (R-Jefferson County), Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs) and Jack Tate (R-Centennial) did the bidding of the Koch-funded group Americans for Potholes Prosperity, making the same tired old argument that we can just find enough money in the couch cushions of various state offices if we look hard enough.

For partisan Republicans like Neville, Hill, and Tate, it’s easier to just say “NO” to everything than it is to try to actually come up with solutions.

Gardner suggests using debt limit to shrink government

(Drown it in the bathtub, redux – Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Sen. Cory Gardner.

On a conservative radio show yesterday, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) proposed tying any increase in the U.S. debt limit to reducing government regulations, raising the specter of stock market gyrations and economic problems that have accompanied uncertainty about America’s commitment making payments on its debt in the past.

“Why don’t we put a measure in place that says, ‘If you increase the debt a dollar, then you have to decrease the regulatory burden by 15 percent or something like that,'” Gardner told KNUS 710-AM’host Krista Kafer Tuesday (at 48 min 25 sec. here).  “Let’s make sure that we’re able to say, ‘You know what, if you’re going to do this, let’s make real government reforms happen and possible.”

Gardner pointed out that the federal government will  have to extend the U.S. debt limit this summer.

Gardner once suggested linking any increase in the debt limit to cutting Obamacare, even saying he’d force a government shut down to do so. He later backtracked on this stance.

Gardner’s proposal would certainly be controversial, possibly causing anxiety and delay in Congress, and it appears to run counter to Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s desire to raise the debt limit quickly.

“As I said in my confirmation hearing, honoring the full faith and credit of our outstanding debt is a critical commitment,” Mnuchin said recently in a letter to congressional leaders. “I encourage Congress to raise the debt limit at the first opportunity so that we can proceed with our joint priorities.”

During the campaign, Trump said it was “worth a fight” to stop any increase in the debt limit–a position that U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman has also held in the past, once saying he didn’t think it would be a “huge deal” to go over the so-called “fiscal cliff” and not extend the debt limit.

Republicans and Democrats increased the debt limit over 100 times (Bush and Reagan did it) until 2011, when an impasse occurred.

Voters? Screw The Voters, Says Sen. Kevin Lundberg

Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R).

A story from the Denver Post’s John Frank today that will make your blood boil–at least 65% of you, anyway:

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…

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 106 last year, after all–by the highest margin of any initiative that passed in 2016 in fact–a far greater margin than many other ballot initiatives that have passed in Colorado and are now considered uncontroversial settled law. As part of implementing the new law, appropriating a modest amount to cover data about how the law is being used seems like a no-brainer.

Unless you’re a Republican on the Joint Budget Committee of the Colorado General Assembly, that is:

“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. [Pols emphasis]

And carrying out their responsibilities to implement voter-approved Proposition 106 isn’t the only area in which JBC Republicans are playing political games with the budget:

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.

It’s not unheard of for lawmakers on the powerful JBC to use their position to take potshots on pet political issues, but the number and significance of these moves this year is raising eyebrows. It’s possible that Republicans are taking more aggressive action locally to keep pace with acrimonious national politics, but that’s not supposed to be the way we do business in Colorado. In Colorado, we’re supposed to take pride in a bipartisan budget process that’s kept free–or at least freer–of partisan political games.

But this year, not even the overwhelming will of the voters is above the fray.

“Fake Choices”–Inside The Absurdities of Colorado’s Budget

Erica Meltzer at the Denverite has an excellent overview of the debate underway this week over the state of Colorado’s $26.8 billion budget. As everyone who studies Colorado politics quickly comes to understand, the annual budget process in our state is a struggle in good times and bad–a question of insufficient revenues for the basic functions of government is hard economic times, but also constitutional constraints on revenues and spending growth that throttles the ability of the government to do its job when times are good:

Colorado lawmakers used deep cuts to hospital funding — $528 million when federal matching dollars are included — to balance the $26.8 billion state budget that was introduced in the Senate Monday. This outcome was the result of years of inability to reckon with some fundamental contradictions in Colorado’s budget process, and it endangers the financial stability of as many as a dozen hospitals around the state, with some facing possible closure, according to the Colorado Hospital Association.

In response to the impact on hospitals, particularly in rural areas, and to the push to place a sales tax increase for transportation on the November ballot, Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg has introduced a bill to do something Democrats have wanted and most Republicans have resisted for several years now — changing the hospital provider fee, the source of this contested hospital funding, into an enterprise fund separate from the rest of the budget.

Reclassifying the hospital provider fee as an enterprise would allow Colorado to collect and distribute this money without pushing the state over the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. But this fix to a vexing problem comes at a price: a $670 million reduction in that revenue limit. Every department would be asked to submit budgets for the 2018-19 fiscal year that are 2 percent smaller than their budgets for 2017-18. More significantly, future budgets would grow from this smaller base.

Split control of the Colorado legislature means that nothing can pass without the support of Republicans in the Colorado Senate. Even if there are a few moderate Republican Senators who support making changes to the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights to ease the law’s constraints on spending, those moderates generally have no chance to even vote on a bill that GOP Senate leadership doesn’t support.

That hard fact is why we have Democrats signing on to this compromise bill with Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, which makes a concession toward hospitals looking at big cuts that Democrats have been hoping for, and reclassifies the hospital provider fee get it out from under TABOR’s revenue limit–but with a heavy cost to award TABOR its pound of proverbial flesh. It’s a compromise that sucks, but is as good as anyone is likely to get this legislative session.

Tim Hoover, a spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, declined to comment on Sonnenberg’s bill, but he called the overall state budget situation “tragic” and unnecessary. Just last week, a Senate committee killed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have asked voters to change the formula that determines the revenue cap so that it would grow with the state’s economy and rising incomes, rather than just population and inflation. If it had passed, it could have meant an extra $133 million to work with in next year’s budget and more going forward.

“You don’t need to make these kinds of fake choices, between whether you have nice schools or nice roads,” he said. “It’s a fake choice because we have a law that creates a fake surplus and forces tax rebates when there isn’t enough money to do the things that we all agree we should do. It creates these dilemmas: Do you fund long-term care for the elderly or do you fix roads? Do you fund more transit or do you try to keep tuition affordable? We can afford to do all those things if we just fix our tax code.” [Pols emphasis]

It seems to us that the contradiction of the state struggling for money even in economic boom times might at some point be enough to persuade a majority of Colorado voters to take more than token action to sort it all out. The combination of Colorado’s constitutional checks, balances, and chokeholds, from the single-subject rule to Amendment 71, makes that a tall order. But nothing’s impossible.

It’s just not going to happen this year.

Nyet, Comrade: Senate GOP Leadership Kills GOP TABOR Fix

Sen. Larry Crowder.

As the AP’s James Anderson reports:

A Senate committee led by Republicans who oppose tampering with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights on Monday defeated a measure to ask Colorado voters if they want to keep more tax revenue for roads, education and health care.

GOP Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction and Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa wanted to ask voters to change the way limits on state revenue are calculated under TABOR, the constitutional amendment adopted in 1992.

But the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to reject the bill.

Colorado Senate GOP leadership made no attempt to conceal their opposition to House Bill 1187, which would have changed the revenue limit under the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights from being indexed against inflation and population growth to personal income growth:

Peter Marcus of the Colorado Springs Gazette adds:

What was unique about House Bill 1187 was that the bill was sponsored by two Republicans: Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction and Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa. It picked up one additional Republican vote in the House when Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, supported it.

The bill had the support of two other Republicans in committee – Reps. Polly Lawrence of Littleton and Phil Covarrubias of Brighton – but they pulled their support when the bill was up for a final vote in the Democratic-controlled House.

Right-leaning advocacy groups at the capitol led by the Independence Institute reportedly put intense pressure on the few “backsliding” Republicans willing to support asking the voters for this fix–which is supposed to be consistent with the spirit of TABOR, but in practice TABOR’s so-called defenders in the legislature reliably oppose.

This outcome is not unexpected of course, and in light of the transportation deal leadership in both chambers is also struggling to get through the Republican gauntlet, it’s a reasonable question whether the timing was right for this. Either way, certainly this has been one of the most visible bipartisan pushes to relax TABOR’s chokehold on state revenue since 2005’s Referendum C. And the case made by Rep. Dan Thurlow and Sen. Larry Crowder was compelling even while it was ignored by the Senate “kill committee.”

“We have to fix the process in order to make logical decisions on the budget,” Thurlow said recently. “If they want us to prioritize, they have to take away the restrictions.”

Crowder’s rural southern Colorado district has suffered because of budget-balancing tactics that include reducing fees paid by hospitals to secure matching federal funds. Those fees are counted as state revenue under TABOR, and when they are cut to balance the budget, rural hospitals get less.

“If you look at it realistically, what are we doing here if we can’t govern?” Crowder said. “There is no holy grail in government. Period. Including TABOR.” [Pols emphasis]

A commendable effort that deserves better than it got yesterday from the Senate State Affairs committee. Here’s to this small crack in the highest wall in Colorado politics growing bigger next year.

Wingnut Pressure Groups: Why Colorado Can’t Have Nice Things

We mentioned this developing story in today’s Get More Smarter roundup, but the crisis over Republican intransigence on a deal to increase revenue for transportation spending in Colorado is getting worse by the minute–recapping the Denver Post’s report today on an “alternative” to the bipartisan deal between the Senate and House leadership from the #2 Republican in the Senate:

Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg calls his effort “supplemental” but the proposal is a clear alternative to the one put forward by Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Speaker Crisanta Duran.

Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said his draft bill would not increase taxes and would use $100 million in existing state dollars to cover a much smaller $1.3 billion bond, which is only enough to improve small local roads.

“I am going to do a supplemental transportation bill that may reduce the tax increase, may provide for some help if this transportation bill doesn’t pass,” he said Monday in a briefing with reporters in Grantham’s office.

At the same time, conservative activists led by the Independence Institute are pushing an “alternative measure” called “Fix Our Damn Roads,” which directs the state to find money in the existing budget to pay for roads improvements:

On Friday, Jon Caldara, head of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, filed his own ballot measure with the Colorado Legislative Council that calls for $2.5 billion in bonding without the tax increase and without the transit funding. There’s enough money in the existing budget to pay for road improvements, he said, and the legislature needs to stop messing around.

And at the top of the Republican food chain, national conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is leading opposition under the Gold Dome to the bipartisan roads compromise:

Watching Americans for Prosperity tear into Senate GOP leadership is particularly interesting, since there has been famously little daylight between that group and Senate Republicans ever since former Senate President Bill Cadman credited AFP with the Republican majority after the 2014 elections. The spokesman for Senate Republicans, Sean Paige, is himself a former AFP staffer–and taking fire from his former shop must be an unusual experience.

Both AFP and the Independence Institute are demonstrating a dogmatic unwillingness to compromise on this important issue, placing them well outside even the Republican mainstream–the proof of that being their opposition to a plan negotiated by a Republican Senate President. Both AFP and the Independence Institute have celebrated the “fiscal responsibility” that the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires the state to observe, but still claim there is hundreds of millions of dollars of waste in the budget that can be “reprioritized” to fund road repairs. Obviously, only one of those can be true.

At some point, you just have to understand that these groups are not interested in a constructive outcome. Their proposals can afford to be unworkable because they are not intended to be serious. These “alternatives” only exist to thwart debate on the real deal. It’s fine for outside pressure groups to draw an ideological hard line like this, but that shouldn’t be the final answer from responsible elected government officials. Governing, after all, is all about compromise.

Unfortunately, these groups wield enormous power. And too often, they write the script that Republican lawmakers read.

Get More Smarter on Tuesday (March 7)

Go away, wind. Let’s go ahead and see if we can Get More Smarter. If you think we missed something important, please include the link in the comments below (here’s a good example). If you are more of a visual learner, check out The Get More Smarter Show.


► House Republicans finally unveiled their healthcare plan, which is basically a bizarro-Robin Hood scenario: Steal from the middle class to give tax cuts to the rich! As the Washington Post reports, Republicans are going to have trouble getting this bill past several competing factions within their own party:

As they roll out their Obamacare replacement plan, Republicans are quickly finding out what Democrats learned eight years ago: Even if you win control of Congress and the White House, there are still plenty of obstacles to passing laws that, in principle, your whole party agrees with.

Several factions within the Republican Party don’t like some key details about this new health-care plan. In fact, there’s enough opposition that these Republicans could derail the bill as it stands. It’s something President Trump appeared to acknowledge when he offered up in a tweet Tuesday morning the opportunity for “review and negotiation.”…

…Assuming no Democrats in either chamber support the bill, Republicans can’t lose more than two GOP senators or 21 Republicans in the House. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. Which means the factions opposed to Obamacare suddenly have a whole lot of leverage.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) is apparently not immune to the concerns of constituents, even if he refuses to meet with them. On Monday Gardner signed a letter from a handful of U.S. Senators defending Medicaid expansion, which would be gutted under the House repeal-and-destroy healthcare plan. This is odd for Gardner, who voted against Medicaid expansion in late 2015.

Meanwhile, poll after poll shows that Americans are increasingly nervous about gutting Obamacare:

Fully 68% of Americans want to keep what works and fix the rest, while just 32% prefer the GOP’s repeal and replace approach, according to polling from Hart Research. Moreover, the polling showed most Americans — including 54% of President Trump’s voters — have a favorable view of the Medicaid system, which would face steep cuts under the Republican plan.

The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, meanwhile, considers the House bill to be nowhere near an acceptable “repeal” of Obamacare.


► The new Republican healthcare bill is still missing two very important points: It does not have an official score from the Congressional Budget Office, nor does it offer any sort of estimate on how many Americans would be covered under its plan. With those two major points still unknown, Politico takes a look at who wins and loses in this version of healthcare “reform.” Medicaid beneficiaries, hospitals, and Planned Parenthood are among the big losers, while rich people make out famously.


► President Trump’s new travel ban is succeeding in causing lots of confusion for students in Colorado. Business leaders, meanwhile, are concerned about a potential scarcity of labor as a result of the travel ban.

In response to Trump’s travel ban, Colorado legislators have proposed the “Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act.”


Get even more smarter after the jump… (more…)