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Wade and Barry show highlights fiscal divide

After spending a day and a half trying to absorb brain-numbing financial presentations, printed reports and Power Point slides, it was only fair that members of the state Fiscal Stability Commission got a little entertainment Thursday afternoon.

The commission, created by the 2009 legislature to study the state’s fiscal structure and recommend changes, started work Wednesday. Ten of the 16 members are non-legislators, so the agenda for the first two days was heavy on background briefings about state revenues and spending, statutory and constitutional requirements, the current revenue crisis, the state of the economy and much more.

But Thursday’s final presentation, featuring leaders of the liberal Bell Policy Center and the conservative Independence Institute, was lighter on numbers and heavier on philosophy, with a bit of entertainment.

Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell, told the panel, “I think you’ve seen all the numbers you need to see,” but he did give them just a few in a Power Point presentation that highlighted the sluggish past and future of state general fund revenues.

“We are at a historic low point” of state spending as a percentage of total state personal income. “Our general fund revenues are deteriorating; [that’s] the single most important fact you guys need to deal with,” Buchanan said.

The state has three choices, Buchanan said – modernize the revenue system and increase general fund revenues, close down some state programs or “try to keep muddling through.”

Buchanan has a low-key manner and opened his remarks with a story about his grandparents and their struggles and successes during the Depression.

The white-haired Barry Poulson, a senior fellow at Independence and a CU-Boulder economics professor, is anything but low key and opened his comments by emphatically declaring, “Colorado is not experiencing a fiscal crisis.”

Arms waving for emphasis, Poulson moved into a conservative’s critique of California’s fiscal mess; defense of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights; a call for even stronger spending, revenue and debt limits, and suggestions for greater financial transparency, banning of earmarks and reform of Medicaid.

“I’ve stop ranting and raving,” he said in closing.

Buchanan and Poulson spoke separately but took questions together, leading to some lively if good-natured exchanges.

Panel member Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said, “We are looking at what I consider to be a budget catastrophe” and asked Poulson if he thought the commission was even necessary.

“My advice is do no harm,” Poulson said.

He and Buchanan had a bit of back and forth over whether Colorado government has grown as fast of the state economy in recent year; it turned out they were using different figures.

“They want to raise taxes,” Poulson said, looking at Buchanan. “I would favor a stable revenue system at a slightly higher level,” Buchanan replied.

The session provided enough fun that the audience in the packed Capitol hearing room applauded briefly when it finished. “We’ve had two hours of wonderful dialogue,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, R-Boulder and commission chair. “This is the conversation this committee is going to have.”

The panel represents a wide spectrum of ideological views, but those were muted during the two days of data-heavy presentations.

Earlier Thursday the commission heard from state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Joint Budget Committee Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, plus three private sector fiscal experts and representatives of local government such as Sam Mamet of the Colorado Municipal League.

(Keller testified at length about the state’s current budget crisis, which will be up to the 2010 legislature to solve, not the commission. But, that immediate problem will hang over the panel’s deliberations. Tom Clark, executive vice president Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., was one of the experts who testified.)

The panel faces two more days of briefings at meetings on July 28 and 29 and is expected to move into detailed debate among its members when it convenes on Aug. 19 and 20.

The overarching issue, Heath said, is “What kind of state do we want to have, what’s the role of government and how do we pay for it?”

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