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Legislative session weathers money arguments, scandal

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It was an exciting session at the Colorado Capitol. - F11PHOTO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • f11photo / Shutterstock.com
  • It was an exciting session at the Colorado Capitol.
When lawmakers adjourned on May 9, they had ticked off most key agenda items of the legislative session, sending a balanced budget to the governor and passing about 60 percent of the 721 bills introduced this year.

But nothing came without struggle, and even after lawmakers wrestled over how to spend a $1.3 billion revenue surplus this year, some key programs are still far from fully funded.

“Even though (this year’s spending) is historic and significant, it’s not enough,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center. “Even our best doesn’t get us across the finish line.”

Below are some of the key accomplishments of the session as well as unfinished business.

• Transportation: The Colorado Department of Transportation has a list of highway projects, including adding lanes to Interstate 25 north of Monument and Interstate 70 through the mountains, that is expected to cost about $9 billion.

And this year, lawmakers approved a plan that could pay $2.4 billion toward these projects through the sale of bonds, which would be paid off over 20 years. The plan is the best lawmakers could come up with in a divided Legislature. Democrats don’t want future bond payments to compete with other state programs like education. Republicans don’t want new taxes because they say it could slow the economy.

“You don’t have to raise the tax rates on people in order to raise more revenue if you let the economy grow,” Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, says.

The agreement to use bonds to pay off some of the state transportation needs was a concession from Democrats, who in return, secured changes to state law to allow a greater percentage of state transportation funding to go toward multimodal projects, like bus lines, sidewalks and bike lanes.

But still, Democrats long have said new taxes are needed if the state wants to actually patch up all potholes and ease traffic congestion along major highway corridors. The bonding measure would cover about a third of the estimated project list. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect to have this conversation again in future years.

Voters will have a chance to change this in November. At least two competing ballot measures will likely land on the ballot. One, backed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, would raise the sales tax by up to a penny on the dollar to generate about $1 billion per year. Another, backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, would ask voters for permission to bond, raising about $3.5 billion in one-time money.

• Education: After the Great Recession, lawmakers issued schools an IOU for money owed them under the state Constitution. Today, that debt, known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor, is about $822 million. This has put stress on school districts struggling to hire needed staff and give teachers pay raises.

Lawmakers this session paid off about $150 million of the debt — about as much as they could do, they said, given other priorities in the budget.

A proposed ballot measure aims to generate more money for K-12 schools by changing a fiscal amendment in the state’s Constitution known as Gallagher, that has also led to less property tax revenue for schools.

The ballot measure would change this amendment by freezing the residential property taxes at 7 percent, among other changes.

• PERA: Lawmakers passed a pension reform plan to shore up the underfunded state pension that about 185,000 public employees rely on for their retirement in lieu of Social Security. Lawmakers agreed to spend about $225 million per year on this pension plan. The pension currently has a $32 billion to $50 billion unfunded liability, meaning it doesn’t have enough money to pay out retirement benefits to current and future retirees.

Teachers, who make up the largest share of the pension, as well as other state workers, will have to contribute another 2 percent of their paychecks into this pension as well under the reform package passed by lawmakers this year. Cost-of-living increases will be frozen for the next two years.

This did not make teachers happy. And the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, opposed the reforms.

“So now as a retired teacher I get zero cost-of-living raises. I don’t know how many times I got the same raise, zero, when I taught,” said one retired teacher on The Colorado Independent’s Facebook page. “If you don’t want to pay professional teachers perhaps high school grads would fit the needs of our state to hire as teachers.”

And still, it will take about three decades before this pension, which is managed by Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, will be fully funded. In the meantime, any crash in the market could risk the pension’s financial footing.

• Sexual harassment: The issue of sexual harassment rocked the state Capitol in early March when lawmakers held back tears on the House floor as they shared their personal stories during debate to expel Steve Lebsock from the House. Lebsock faced multiple allegations that he sexually harassed a lawmaker, Rep. Faith Winter, and some workers at the Capitol. The Democrat-turned-Republican was later ousted in the first expulsion vote in 103 years at the Colorado Capitol.

“It was the most honest and raw conversation I’ve ever seen on the House floor,” said Becky Long, a lobbyist with Siegel Public Affairs.

In the Senate, three Republicans have been accused of butt grabbing, flirting and making sexually charged comments. None have faced any consequences besides Sen. Randy Baumgardner, who was stripped of his committee positions this month.

When Republicans blocked a resolution on April 2 to expel Baumgardner, they questioned the credibility of an investigator’s report that found the allegations to be credible. A few days earlier, on March 30, a subsequent investigation into additional allegations validated two additional complaints of sexual misconduct against Baumgardner. Lawmakers did not know about this report, and Senate leadership says they were not aware of these findings when they scheduled the resolution vote about three days later.

This is an abbreviated version of a story from the The Colorado Independent.

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