“My legislative duty includes necessarily upholding constitutional requirements.” – Senator Ellen Roberts
We’re past the ceremonial days of the 2016 legislature and the only tasks we must complete in a session, based on the state’s constitution, are to pass the budget and the school finance act. Although a short list, these two pieces of legislation require months of noodling, number-crunching and negotiations. This year will be no exception. The budget touches every essential — and many nonessential — governmental services, and will be the biggest challenge we face over the next 120 days.
In their opening speeches, Gov. John Hickenlooper and House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, both Democrats, already assigned blame to the Republicans for budget battles brewing on the horizon, saying there’s only one path to reconciling the mess and that’s with their workaround on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Their speeches highlighted the word “compromise,” but in a way that suggested perhaps neither has read the book Getting to Yes. There’s an art to compromise, including listening and incorporating the input of others, something sorely missing here.
It’s important to note that the top 2016 challenge in all U.S. state legislatures is balancing their budgets. Unlike Colorado, more than a dozen states failed to meet their 2015 deadlines to balance their budget. So, while the spending limitations of TABOR and other constitutional requirements are hard to reconcile, it’s not TABOR causing the big squeeze, but, as experienced across the country, the very long lists of state spending that are exceeding available revenue.
We can’t print money at the state level, but, unfortunately, we’ve become much like Washington, D.C., finding short-term fixes to deal with the huge number of unfunded mandates that have been passed on to the states. Most pressing right now are the mandates under the Affordable Care Act, but there are numerous unfunded mandates from the federal government, stripping away the states’ ability to be more fiscally responsible.
Some will characterize Colorado’s budget debate as solely partisan-driven, but that’s an overused and, frankly, lazy analysis. It’s true there are deep differences between the parties about the appropriate role of state government in providing services to its citizens, but this particular budget situation is more like the bill collector knocking at the door after a long, expensive stretch of binge shopping.
I reject the governor’s budget “fix” not because he’s a Democrat and I’m not, but because my legislative duty includes necessarily upholding constitutional requirements. Colorado’s constitution is central under the rule of law. We need to seek voters’ approval to change the constitution rather than enforcing our own form of executive order on the people. I’ve spoken up for years against the shifting of state funds to backfill the budget desires in other areas because I knew the piper would get paid, eventually. It’s time to address our failure to apply truth-in- spending principles.
Arriving at a balanced budget won’t happen by proposing to spread the pain among the most active special interest groups so they will cajole, email and yell at legislators, a tactic already being tried by the administration. Instead, as we did last year, we can produce a bipartisan, balanced budget, and do it on time. We just need to stay open to alternative paths, with an eye on the long view, to determine what Colorado’s government can constitutionally afford to do in our great state.
Senate President Pro Tem Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, represents Senate District 6, covering eight counties in southwestern Colorado. She chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is vice chair of the Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee.