A need to rethink the process

As the Rockies begin the new baseball season in Denver, the Senate has begun debating the budget bill for next year. The first is definitely more fun than the second. The budget will come to the House once passed by the Senate. Since there’s even less state revenue to work with than the last budget cycle, the number one topic is where to make the cuts or how to find new revenue. This puts the two parties, and even members of the same party, at odds with each other.

The Joint Budget Committee is currently a committee of six legislators, four Democrats and two Republicans. Three each are in the Senate and the House. They attend many more hearings during the interim than most legislators as they hear from state agencies and departments about budget requests. The JBC members write the proposed budget based on the input they received. Many feel they hold the most power because the budget is our most important annual bill. It’s also a tremendous amount of hard work.

The rest of the legislators could attend the JBC hearings as well, but given the timing of those meetings during the interim and the distance to be traveled for some, not many are able to do that. In theory, our citizen legislature is a part-time position and some, although not many, are still able to juggle different jobs when we’re not in session.

The JBC members present their budget to the 94 other legislators about this time each year. Because of the considerable time demands they already face, the JBC members don’t sit on the regular committees as the rest of the legislators. We see them mostly only on the floor of the House or Senate because their offices are not even in the Capitol, but across the street. All of this leads to a literal disconnectedness from the rest of the members that may not be healthy, particularly in times of economic crisis.

With this budget, the JBC has presented dramatic ideas that apparently they’ve been discussing for a while, but are startlingly new to the rest of the legislature. To balance the next budget, it’s proposed that we must cut $300 million from higher education. If we don’t want to make the higher ed cuts, we’re told we must raid the worker’s comp fund, known as Pinnacol Assurance, of at least $500 million. Pinnacol is a quasi-state agency because the state set it up and it has tax exempt status. Pinnacol doesn’t want to part with any portion of its reserves and has threatened to sue to stop such an effort by the state.

A lawsuit means these funds wouldn’t be available to plug the budget gap right now, even if ultimately the state can legally take some or all of the reserves. A number of Pinnacol policyholders in my district strongly object to this idea. An equal number of my constituents vehemently oppose cutting higher education by another $300 million. I don’t like either idea and I expect we’ll be in a special session this summer on the budget.

Although there’s been some crossing of party lines on these votes in the Senate, the budget decisions this year will be determined by the majority party because, obviously, those with the most votes, win.

Looking to the future, I believe it’s time to rethink how we approach our budgeting process in Colorado, from the role of the joint budget committee to how often we craft a new budget. A former JBC member recently wrote a column suggesting we look at changing to a biennial budget so that agencies can evaluate the effectiveness of programs and functions before requesting new money to continue them. The annual budget process doesn’t allow for that and wise long term planning is forfeited. This should happen alongside of the rethinking of the fiscal policies in our state Constitution.