Saturday, 20 Apr 2024

Colorado Democrats’ spending priorities

Colorado lawmakers have millions of dollars worth of decisions to make in the closing weeks of the legislative session, spread among dozens of bills that far surpass the budget allotted to them

To guide the decision-making process, the Democratic majority in each chamber secretly ranks the bills to gauge members’ priorities for the limited funds. The result does not guarantee a bill’s passage or failure and, leaders contend, isn’t a vote. It is instead a data point lawmakers use in weighing the policies, leaders said — and gives a peek into the majorities’ overall feelings as the end of the session approaches. Democrats have a supermajority in the House of Representatives and a near-supermajority in the Senate.

How the individual lawmakers rank the bills is kept secret, opening the process to criticism that it lacks transparency and accountability. Defenders say it’s a more open process than years past, when prioritization decisions were largely made in backrooms and without broader input. This is the first time the list has been made public. It was provided by Senate and House leadership.

In all, the lawmakers ranked 140 bills with price tags ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to tens of thousands. They separate the proposals into four buckets: One-time costs; those with relatively low ongoing costs of about $250,000 or less; more expensive ongoing costs; and those that affect revenue or the cap set by the taxpayer bill of rights.

The topics include high-dollar tax credit proposals, staffing for government offices, enacting proposed policies around intimate exams or guns without serial numbers, new license plates and more.

Sometimes, House and Senate Democrats were in alignment on what is, or isn’t, a high priority. In others, a gulf emerged between the chambers.

One of the biggest gulfs is a bill to make all car theft a felony, regardless of the vehicle’s value. Its supporters argue it’s about equity and treating victims the same; detractors worry about over-criminalization without actually bringing down car thefts.

In the Senate, where the bill originated and is generally seen as the more moderate chamber, Democrats ranked it as the No. 5 priority. In the House, Democratic members ranked it No. 37. It would cost the state about $550,000, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysis.

Not knowing how lawmakers rated these bills poses a problem for voters assessing whether their representatives and senators deserve re-election, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts said.

“Having the aggregated outcome is a positive step. It at least is something,” Roberts said. But, he added, “Legislators are making their thoughts known via this process. Why isn’t the public entitled to see that?”

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said the software used didn’t separate out the votes. It’s also not a process that determines the outcomes of bills. It’s just a data point for lawmakers when they do make a formal, recorded vote — and a process he said General Assembly lawyers have signed off on.

“The purpose isn’t for people to vote, because that’s what they do in committees,” Fenberg said. “The purpose is for folks to weigh in on what they think the priorities should be for allocating the funding..”

House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said the process is more transparent and representative than in prior years. In the past, decisions about what to winnow and what to keep were made by legislative leaders and members of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, without the full input of the membership, she said.

“Before my time, (funding) decisions were made in a room about what should get funded and what shouldn’t,” McCluskie said. “We’re trying to give more voices an opportunity to weigh in on what the priorities are. And as representatives of millions of Coloradans, I feel like this process is much more equitable. Here are the results. It is not our goal to hide anything. We are trying to be as transparent as we can in this process.”

Among the bucket of bills that affect revenue or potential taxpayer bill of rights, or TABOR, refunds, Democrats in both chambers had an identical top 3: $391 million to expand the earned income and child tax credits; $39 million to fund a tax credit for donations to promote child care; and a bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would include about $11.2 million in tax credits toward that goal.

“It’s very clear that just because something is prioritized highly doesn’t mean it’s going to pass or get funded,” Fenberg said. “And if something gets not prioritized, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to pass. Again, it’s just a data point people can take into account as they’re thinking about, OK this is how much money we have.”

Here are the highest-ranked bills by chamber and by type of spending

One-time spending

  • Compensatory direct distribution to PERA (SB23-056): No. 1 in Senate; 12 in House of Representatives
  • Wildfire detection technology pilot program (SB23-032): No. 2 in Senate; 15 in House
  • Informed consent to intimate patient examinations (HB23-1077): No. 3(t) in Senate; 3 in House
  • Pathways to behavioral health care (HB23-1153): No. 3(t) in Senate; No. 5 in House
  • Higher education student financial aid for youth mentors (SB23-149): No. 6 in Senate; 13 in House (Note: There was no listed No. 5 in the Senate).
  • Amenities for all genders in public buildings (HB23-1057): No. 9 in Senate; No. 1 in House
  • Inclusive language emergency situations (HB23-1237): No. 17 in Senate; No. 2 in House
  • Analyze statewide publicly financed health care (HB23-1209): No. 9 in Senate; No. 4 in House

Ongoing (less than about $250,000)

  • Reduce child and incarcerated parent separation (SB23-039): No. 1 in Senate; No. 12 in House
  • Drug coverage for serious mental illness (HB23-1130): No. 2 in Senate; No. 3 in House
  • Affordability of EpiPens (HB23-1002): No. 3 in Senate; No. 1 in House
  • Missing and murdered indigenous relatives office (SB23-054): No. 4 in Senate; No. 12 in House
  • Environmental standards for appliances (HB23-1161): No. 5 in Senate; No. 5 in House
  • Remote participation in residential evictions (HB23-1186): No. 18 in Senate; No. 2 in House
  • Legal representation and students with disabilities (HB23-1168): No. 10 in Senate; No. 4 in House

Revenue/TABOR impact

  • Earned income and child tax credits (HB23-1112): No. 1 in Senate; No. 1 in House
  • Continuation of childcare contribution tax credit (HB23-1091): No. 2 in Senate; No. 2 in House
  • Greenhouse gas emission reduction measures (SB23-016): No. 3 in Senate; No. 3 in House
  • Sales use tax exemption wildfire disaster construction (HB23-1240): No. 4 in Senate; No. 10 in House
  • Income tax credit for retrofitting a home for health reasons (SB23-196): No. 5 in Senate; No. 4(t) in House
  • Income tax credit for eligible teachers (HB23-1208): No. 13 in Senate; No. 4(t) in House

Ongoing (more than $250,000)

  • Protecting opportunities and workers’ rights act (SB23-172): No. 1 in Senate; No. 15 in House
  • Ensure equal pay for equal work (SB23-105): No. 2 in Senate; No. 7 in House
  • Improve healthcare access for older Coloradans (SB23-031): No. 3 in Senate; No. 18 in House
  • Forest and wildfire mitigation workforce (SB23-005): No. 4 in Senate; No. 23 in House
  • Motor vehicle theft and unauthorized use (SB23-097): No. 5 in Senate; No. 37 in House
  • School mental health assessment (HB23-1003): No. 7 in Senate; No. 1 in House
  • Food accessibility (HB23-1008): No. 10 in Senate; No. 2 in House
  • Eviction protections for residential tenants (HB23-1120): No. 18 in Senate; No. 3 in House
  • Cost of phone calls for persons in custody (HB23-1133): No. 14 in Senate; No. 4 in House
  • Mobile home park water quality (HB23-1257): No. 22 in Senate; No. 5(t) in House
  • Regional health connector program (HB23-1244): No. 23 in Senate; No. 5(t) in House

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