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Senate takes up symbolic budget fight

After 50 minutes of debate, the Democratic-controlled Senate today passed its own version of the contentious resolution that sets a target for state revenues in 2011-12.

On a party-line 20-15 vote, the Senate passed a version of House Joint Resolution 11-1007 that sets a revenue target $195 million higher than that passed by the Republican-controlled house – and which would devote excess revenues, if any, to K-12 education.

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs
Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs

The morning debate mirrored the partisan split in the House, but the tone was more polite in the Senate.

The resolution is an annual legislative item that estimates a revenue level for the upcoming budget year. It provides guidance for – but is not binding on – the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the annual state budget bill. The resolution typically takes one of state’s December revenue forecasts, either from the executive branch Office of State Planning and Budgeting or from the Legislative Council staff. The resolution usually uses the lower of the two.

In its original form HJR 11-1007 used the Legislative Council estimate of about $7.1 billion. At the urging of House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, the House amended the resolution down to $6.9 billion.

The Senate vote takes the number back to $7.1 billion, with the additional proviso that if revenues are higher than that next year, that money will be used to reduce the amount of cuts to state support of K-12 education.

Debate in the Senate reflected the philosophical divide that has developed between the two parties on the budget.

Republicans argue the estimate should be set low as a way to avoid midyear budget cuts next year. “It’s more prudent to direct the Joint Budget Committee to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Democrats want to avoid cutting more than they feel necessary. “Let’s use the right number, and let’s make the commitment to our children,” said Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs and author of the Senate amendment. “We want to make cuts at the last possible moment.”

The Democrats also argue that it’s wiser to use the number developed by professionals – legislative staff economists – rather than use an arbitrary figure chosen by legislators.

Republicans question whether it’s legal to put a spending decision – earmarking excess revenues for K-12 – in a resolution intended merely to set a revenue target. Some Republican senators also argued that protecting education spending will hurt other programs.

To make political points, Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, proposed a series of amendments that would have devoted excess revenues to Medicaid, transportation and other programs. He urged “no” votes on all those, thereby getting Democratic members on the record as voting no on those programs.

The most significant political compromise on the 2011-12 state budget probably will have to be made in the JBC itself, which is split 3-3 between the two parties.

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