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The Mean Season

Fiscal crisis makes legislators 'crabby,' partisan-minded



Rep. Bill Sinclair, a Colorado Springs Republican, has served in the state Legislature for seven years.

Never before, he says, has he seen legislators be this mean.

"It's the worst session I've been in," Sinclair said of the current proceedings at the state Capitol in Denver. "We're doing terrible stuff."

With the economic recession forcing legislators to cut almost $1 billion from the state budget, everybody is fighting for scraps and fielding complaints from constituents about the budget slashing. The result, says Sinclair, is that "everybody up here is crabby."

Other El Paso County legislators agree.

"It's just been a very mean-spirited session," said Rep. Mark Cloer, also a Republican.

Rep. Richard Decker, a Republican representing the Fountain area, says he also dislikes making the huge cuts, which have resulted in cuts from higher education, treatment for the mentally ill, and Medicaid benefits for immigrants, to name just a few.

"It doesn't make me feel good," Decker said. "I'm not having a whole lot of fun."

But the legislators maintain they have few choices. The state Constitution requires them to pass a balanced budget, and tax revenues are scarce due to the slow economy. Meanwhile, constitutional amendments approved by voters over the years, such as the "Taxpayers Bill of Rights," or TABOR, severely limit legislators' abilities to raise taxes.

Republicans also complain that the voter-approved Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in spending on K-12 education, further cripples their ability to make choices.

"My decisions were made for me by the people," Decker said.

Things are only likely to get worse. Sinclair predicts that next year legislators may end up shutting down as much as 25 percent of state government.

"Conservatives have been saying they want smaller government," Decker observed. "We're gonna get it in spades."

Far from united

Although legislators on both sides of the aisle are confronting a common enemy in the form of the fiscal crisis, Democrats and Republicans are far from united. In fact, things have gotten downright nasty.

"It's just been a very partisan year," Cloer said.

Republicans, who regained control of the state Senate after Democrats had held a slim majority for just two years following the 2000 elections, have taken advantage of their position to try and push through two major initiatives dear to conservatives: school vouchers and so-called "right to work" legislation that would make it harder for labor unions to organize.

Observers say the Republicans' desire to pass right-to-work laws grew after the 2000 elections, when union activism was credited with helping the Democrats take control of the Senate.

House Bill 1209, which appeared to be nearing House approval as of press time, would prohibit so-called "closed shops" workplaces where employees are required to join a labor union.

But Sinclair, who backs the bill, said Republican Sen. Ken Chlouber, who represents a portion of northwestern El Paso County and has opposed similar legislation in the past, will probably help the Democrats defeat the bill in the Senate.

"It'll die," Sinclair predicted.

The outlook was brighter for House Bill 1160, one of several proposed school-voucher bills, which passed this week and was awaiting the signature of Gov. Bill Owens. The measure creates a "pilot program" through which some low-performing students in public schools would receive vouchers from the state to attend private schools.

All of El Paso County's legislators voted for HB 1160, except Rep. Michael Merrifield, himself a former teacher and the delegation's sole Democrat.

Supporters say vouchers will help students who are failing in public schools, while opponents say voucher programs in other states have failed to deliver on that promise. Critics also say vouchers weaken already under-funded public schools by diverting tax money to private schools.

"[Vouchers] are bad public policy, they're bad tax policy, they're bad education policy," said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union.

Even Cloer, who backed the bill, says he's not convinced that vouchers work. Still, the substitute teacher says he voted for the bill to "give it a shot on a limited basis."

The bill is likely to be challenged in court by opponents who maintain it violates the state Constitution, Fallin said.

Thumb in the eye

Local Republican legislators also appear to be lining up behind another controversial measure, House Bill 1132, which critics claim undermines Amendment 27, the campaign-finance initiative passed by state voters last fall.

The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Rob Fairbank of Jefferson County, seeks to legally define campaign fliers as "newspapers." This would allow political candidates to circumvent a provision in Amendment 27 that requires disclosure of who paid for campaign materials, because the original amendment exempts newspapers from the disclosure requirement.

The measure also seeks to circumvent limits on campaign contributions by allowing legislators to set up "office accounts" that can receive unlimited contributions from lobbyists and other contributors.

Those "office accounts" will likely be used for campaigning, says Pete Maysmith, director of Colorado Common Cause, an organization that sponsored Amendment 27.

"It's a clear thumb in the eye to the voters" who approved Amendment 27, Maysmith said.

Local Republican Reps. Sinclair, Bill Cadman and Dave Schultheis supported HB 1132 in a House committee, and Cloer said he was inclined to back it. A full House vote on the bill was pending as of press time.

Sinclair says voters may not have realized just how restrictive Amendment 27 was, and said House Bill 1132 contains only "minor amendments" to restore some "leeway" for political candidates.

Getting personal

Meanwhile, Merrifield, who was elected as the first Democratic legislator from El Paso County in a decade, says he's feeling the increased partisanship in a personal way. He accuses Republicans of an orchestrated effort to defeat his bills purely in order to weaken his chances when he runs for reelection next year.

"There's no doubt," Merrifield said of their motives.

One of his proposals, House Bill 1269, would have used existing scholarships to help high-performing students from poor neighborhoods go to college and earn teaching certificates. In return, the students would commit to returning to their neighborhoods to teach.

Merrifield's House Bill 1279 would have given school districts increased flexibility in how they spend federal funds for failing schools.

The Republican-controlled House Education Committee killed both bills on straight party-line votes, with Rep. Lynn Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, casting crucial votes against them.

Hefley did not respond to a request for comment.

Two other Merrifield bills were killed in a similar fashion in the House Local Government Committee. House Bill 1181 would have limited the ability of counties to use so-called "Certificates of Participation," or COPs, to borrow money for capital projects. The bill was sparked by the El Paso County Board of Commissioners' unpopular decision to use COPs to expand the county jail after voters rejected a tax increase for the project.

House Bill 1278, meanwhile, would have restricted counties' ability to divert road and bridge taxes to their general funds. The bill was inspired by the El Paso County commissioners' decision to effectively divert road and bridge taxes to help pay for the jail expansion.

Rep. Decker cast crucial votes to kill both of Merrifield's bills in the Local Government Committee, even though the city of Fountain, which he represents, backed the bill regarding road and bridge taxes. The city's share of the taxes was reduced by the El Paso County commissioners' action.

Though Decker admitted there might be partisan efforts to kill Merrifield's legislation, he said he personally opposed Merrifield's bills on their merits.

"We were supporting the counties' ability to take care of their own business," Decker said.

In the end, Merrifield only succeeded in passing one bill a "housekeeping" measure that extends a previous measure creating an electronic registry for sex offenders. The Republican leadership tried to kill that as well, Merrifield says, but failed.

"I had to work like crazy to get it through," Merrifield said.

The delegation's other freshman, Republican Sen. Ed Jones, hasn't made a big splash, either. His voucher proposal, Senate Bill 77, appears dead in the water now that HB 1160 has passed, and his other bills have mainly been uncontroversial housekeeping measures that have been approved unanimously.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

Not in lockstep

Despite the overall partisan atmosphere, the El Paso County delegation has occasionally split across party lines on some controversial issues during the session.

Reps. Hefley, Merrifield, Cloer and Decker all supported House Bill 1174, which would have expanded all-day kindergarten programs in low-performing schools, while Reps. Cadman, Schultheis, Sinclair and Keith King opposed it. Federal funds would have paid for the program.

"I represent a low-income neighborhood, where it's a big help for parents who are trying to figure out how they're going to pay for childcare," Cloer said in explaining his support for the bill.

The measure died, however, when El Paso County Republican Sens. Ron May and Doug Lamborn cast critical party-line votes against it in a Senate committee. Neither May nor Lamborn could be reached for comment as of press time.

The delegation also split over a proposal by Rep. Cadman that would have enabled landlords to evict tenants without a court hearing. Fellow Republicans Schultheis and Sinclair helped kill the measure, House Bill 1039.

"I didn't like that at all," Sinclair said of Cadman's bill. "It really got in the way of due process."

On another landlord-tenant issue, Decker, Sinclair, Cloer, Merrifield and King backed House Bill 1158, which would have allowed tenants to withhold rent when landlords fail to make certain repairs to rental units, while Cadman, Hefley and Schultheis opposed it. Though the bill cleared the House, May and Lamborn helped kill it in a Senate committee.

Cloer also found himself in the middle of partisan clashes over Senate Bill 176, a budget-cutting measure that eliminates Medicaid benefits for thousands of legal immigrants in Colorado. Opponents of the measure lobbied Cloer vigorously to vote against the bill when it came to a House committee on which he serves. Had he opposed the bill, it would have lost on a 6-5 vote.

Cloer says he didn't like the bill, because it will deprive many low-income people of critical health care, including prenatal care.

"I think there are other areas that could have been cut," Cloer said.

Nonetheless, he voted with fellow Republicans to pass it out of committee. He claims he was forced to vote "yes" because the bill got tied up in a procedural challenge to the committee's Republican chairwoman. Then, when the bill came to the House floor, Cloer voted "no," along with Merrifield.

The rest of the El Paso delegation supported the bill, which passed and has been signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens. The American Civil Liberties Union, however, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the law from taking effect, saying it's unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to legal immigrants.

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