Vail Valley Voices: Brutal budget choices for state Legislature
Vail, CO, Colorado
I have received a lot of grumbling and anger this year from many of you. I’m hopeful that with a little explanation, I might help you better understand why I have done some of the things that seem to have you so upset.
First, you need to understand the operations of the Joint Budget Committee, of which I am one of six members. There are three members from each chamber ” two Democrat senators and one Republican senator (me) and two House Democrats and one House Republican. We started our 2009-10 budget process in early November, hearing from budget staffers about various department requests, and then we heard directly from the departments.
In December, we were told that our current-year budget, 2008-09, was going to see a revenue shortfall of $600 million.
With only six months left in that budget year, we made transfers from cash funds, reduced our statutory reserve by half and made the cuts we could though we were halfway through the year. Once that was complete, we went back to work on the 2009-10 budget for next fiscal year. We needed to make additional transfers, cuts and reductions to bring that budget to balance.
This proved to be a more difficult task than originally anticipated, as the March revenue forecast showed further projected reductions in 2009-10 revenue. As a result, we had to consider many distasteful options.
At one point, we suggested cutting $300 million from higher education but had hoped to backfill that cut with money from Pinnacol Assurance Company. Pinnacol is the state worker’s-compensation company, and it first appeared that, as a state agency, we could access their surplus statutory reserve.
On further investigation, it was shown that this wouldn’t work, which sent us back to the deliberations.
We all agreed that cutting higher ed by $300 million really wasn’t a workable solution, so we made other proposals: cutting K-12, doing away with the senior homestead exemption, cutting rates for Medicaid providers and furloughing state employees.
In the end, we did all of these as well as many other distasteful but necessary cuts and transfers.
We tried to cut our own legislative salaries but were informed that we could neither increase nor decrease our own salary and benefits during any session. Anything we do along those lines wouldn’t take effect until the next General Assembly (2011).
The way JBC works is that we can all vote on the issues under consideration, but once they are adopted, they become part of our budget proposal. Once the budget bill is sent over from the JBC, though I may disagree with many provisions that it contains, I am obligated to vote for the bill.
Last year, I was the only Republican in the House to do so. This year, I was the only Republican in the Senate to do so. It was my duty as a member of the committee.
I apologize to all of you who have been hurt by the budget decisions that were made this year. I have been told this year is the worst in several decades and possibly in the 50 years that the JBC has existed.
Our hands are tied with many constitutional provisions that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Therefore, we don’t have the latitude prior JBC members have had.
To make matters worse, I am concerned that the 2010-11 budget might be even worse. There are no rabbits to pull out of our hat. If revenues don’t improve, cuts that we considered but found ways around last time will have to happen.
The budgetary pain will be felt statewide. Cuts will be deep and pervasive. I don’t say this to frighten you, only to warn you of what the possibilities might be.
In the future, if you have any questions about the budget process or my proposals or actions, please don’t hesitate to call me on my cell phone at 303-886-2537 or e-mail me with questions at al.white.senate
@state.co.us. Believe it or not, there is more method than madness to my actions, once you understand the lay of the land and the rules and protocol under which I must operate. As difficult as it can be to serve on the JBC, it is still the most powerful committee in the Legislature, and it is where I have the most leverage to protect the interests of northwest Colorado.
Al White represents Eagle County in the state Senate.