State budget highlights party differences

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By Greg Romberg

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. SB 228 certainly proves that adage in Colorado. When Gov. Bill Ritter signed the bill last week, he characterized the bill as taking a big step toward modernizing Colorado’s state budget. At the same time, Josh Penry, the Senate minority leader and a possible challenger to Ritter in next year’s governor’s race, called the bill “California-style taxing and spending.”

Much of politics has to do with energizing your base, and the discussion around Colorado’s budget issues in general and SB 228 in particular falls clearly into that category. Contradictory budget requirements have plagued Colorado decision makers for several years. When the legislature froze mill levies last year to maintain local tax levies for education and free up state revenues for other priorities, it triggered a judicial review that not only verified the legitimacy of the mill levy freeze but also suggested the legislature had authority to adjust the state’s 6 percent spending increase limits at the same time.

When Don Marostica, a Republican from Loveland who is a member of the Joint Budget Committee, began discussing what ultimately became SB 228, there were great hopes that a bipartisan approach to address both structural issues and specific things for the 2009-10 state budget could be forged.

However, when the dust had settled and SB 228 passed the legislature, Marostica was the only one of the 41 Republicans in the legislature who voted for the bill.

Most Democrats supported the bill because they believed it produced budget flexibility and established a rainy day fund. Republicans argued the bill lessens the state’s commitment to funding transportation and allows lawmakers to increase government spending when budget cuts would be more appropriate.

In general, Colorado’s Democrats believe state government is under-funded in times of economic stress and that additional resources and flexibility to use existing resources are necessary to provide the services they believe state government should provide. Conversely, most Republicans believe state government has what it needs and that problems and issues are more likely to be solved if more money remains in taxpayers’ pockets.

While the passage of SB 228 was never seriously in doubt, it was debated vigorously and should serve as a preview of 2010 elections. From the standpoint of energizing bases, both Democratic votes to enact the bill and Republican votes to oppose it are consistent with the beliefs of most of their fellow party members. In general, tax elections over the past five years have reflected a growing trend of Colorado voters approving additional spending for things they supported. As the economy went into the tank, 2008 was more of a mixed bag as tax proposals for schools passed in some jurisdictions and failed in others, including Jefferson County.

The rhetoric over the implementation of SB 228 details the different approach to the role of government and will undoubtedly continue to be discussed until Election Day in 2010.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.