Don't try to tell state Senate leaders John Morse and Brandon Shaffer that Colorado's economy is looking much rosier for 2011. And, certainly, don't say anything about the Legislature perhaps facing an uneventful session this year.
As far as Morse and Shaffer are concerned, the 2011 General Assembly will convene next week facing the same difficult challenges that have plagued Colorado since the recession struck in 2007. If anything, this might even be the Legislature's toughest year yet.
Shaffer, the Senate president from Longmont, and Morse, the majority leader from Colorado Springs, paid a visit to the Indy this week to outline what they expect in the months ahead.
"We've got to focus on jobs, because it's obvious how much the state's economy needs all the help it can get, and we have to accelerate improving our infrastructure, fixing roads and bridges," Morse says. "It's also important for us to start implementing the health care [insurance] exchanges that Congress passed last year, because if we don't do it, the feds will do it for us, and nobody wants that."
Then there's the matter of congressional redistricting, a task for the Legislature that comes along every 10 years, after the Census. Colorado will keep its seven U.S. House seats, but it's no certainty that the district boundaries will remain the same. Both parties have equal representation on the redistricting committee, and lengthy turf battles are guaranteed.
Adding to the overall uncertainty is having Republicans back in control of the state House, while Gov. John Hickenlooper builds his new Democratic administration. All that, plus the usual flood of bills across the spectrum of issues and problems, would be enough to fill the mandated 120-day session limit.
But the Legislature also has to balance the state's budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins in July. And the latest forecast predicts a whopping $1.2 billion deficit for that next budget, based on continued revenue shortfalls despite the slowly improving economy.
The past few years, legislators and Gov. Bill Ritter were able to minimize the pain, thanks in part to maneuvering finances and funds but mostly because they used federal stimulus money to plug the holes. There had been hope that the new Congress might provide additional stimulus help for state governments, as Morse puts it, "because Colorado and 48 other states are looking at similar, major problems." But with all the talk of austerity in Washington after the midterm elections, Shaffer and Morse say prospects for more federal money have faded.
"So we might be able to use smoke and mirrors to get that $1.2 billion down some, but we're still looking at having to cut somewhere between $600 million and $800 million," Morse says.
After several years of making creative reductions around protected mandates (human services, judicial system, etc.), legislators don't have many choices. The simplest scenario, which Morse and Shaffer envision, would mean balancing the budget on education cuts, perhaps half ($300 million to $400 million) from K-through-12 and half from higher ed.
"This is where we're hoping Congress can help us in some way," Morse says, "because otherwise we could lose up to 8,000 teachers in Colorado alone, and it's a lot more in other states. Surely, Congress doesn't want to let that happen. After our last cuts for K-12, many superintendents told us they were able to spare the classroom. But the next dollar we take out, we'll start losing a lot of teachers."
The one uncertainty, as Morse puts it, is that current plans "assume no growth in revenue for education." That could change if lawmakers find different solutions. Yet, Morse adds, "we can charge 18-year-olds tuition [for college], but we can't charge 8-year-olds. ... And the new governor is saying there's no appetite for tax increases."
Shaffer emphasizes one positive: Denver is a long way from Washington, in more ways than one. Inside the state Capitol, the two parties generally have worked together with success. Of course, Republicans might have some ideas of their own for how to balance that budget. But Shaffer already is encouraged that incoming Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch has been showing "a bipartisan tone."
"I hope we can just bury the hatchet," Shaffer says, "and look at everything through a practical lens."
Of course, when you're cutting up to $800 million, it's hard to be practical.