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Working together to solve budget problems

Being in the Colorado legislature this session reminds me of riding in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic a number of years ago. Training for the ride from Durango to Silverton, as a citizen rider, meant many, many hours of hard work to wind my way up really steep terrain to the end of the course. This year in the legislature, it’s taking the same kind of discipline to keep at it despite the daunting challenges ahead.

It might be helpful to give you the backdrop of the session from my perspective. There are two goal lines I’m looking at, one near-term, and the other with a hope for what Colorado might look like further down the road.

On the immediate horizon, we must face the true fiscal situation that we find ourselves in. We can not climb out of the hole until we stop digging it. This means determining the full size and scope of the budget debt we face and what it will take to reach a balanced budget this year.

Using the severance tax money to backfill budget holes, while immediately satisfying to some, is cannibalizing the rural, energy producing areas by brushing aside basic infrastructure impacts of energy production that were, by law, to be mitigated by the severance tax starting in 1977.

Being honest about our fiscal condition also requires the state legislature to acknowledge and stop the practice of unfunded mandates. I’m referring to what the federal government decides Colorado must do, but provides no funding for that new work. In turn, Colorado often does the same to local governments. This priority setting by one, but paid for by another, creates an unsustainable free spending mentality.

Another area of immediate concern is the health of our state pension fund. I supported the reform measures of last year, but we don’t know if they’ll hold up in court. Even if they do, a small deviation from the expected 8 percent return on investments and PERA will be back in fiscal ill health. The PERA board must provide independent thinking and probing on management decisions for such a tremendously important state resource and obligation is critical.

Some constituents have emphatically declared that the money belongs to PERA beneficiaries and other taxpayers and the state legislature should bugger off. However, the PERA fund is private and public money. Taxpayers contribute the government employer’s contribution and any insolvency will become the debt of Colorado’s taxpayers. To tell the concerned public to mind their own business is precisely what they’re doing when they question the current status of the state’s huge pension plan.

These are a few of the short-term challenges. Looming not far away is the condition of our state’s constitution with its many requirements to simultaneously spend and cut, where we push our collective Colorado foot down hard on the pedal while yanking on the brake — makes it tough to move us forward.

Let’s work together to solve these tough problems; it’ll take all of us to get there.