DENVER– The proposed $19 billion state budget for fiscal year 2012-13 was approved Thursday by the Colorado Senate – 30 to 5. Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman called it a budget that “moms can love,” and Senate President Brandon Shaffer lauded members of the Joint Budget Committee for their hard work.
The five dissenting votes were cast by Republican Senators Greg Brophy of Wray, Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch, Shawn Mitchell of Broomfield, Tim Neville of Littleton and Scott Renfroe of Greeley.
“What a difference a year makes on the budget,” remarked Sen. Cadman (R-Colorado Springs). “The general fund didn’t become the thief of every other fund” to balance the budget unlike previous years during this recession.
He praised House Bill 1335, known as the “long bill,” for restoring the Homestead Exemption Act that provides $100 million in tax relief to seniors and allocating $60 million to public schools and nearly $50 million to the college opportunity fund.
“This mom really isn’t happy,” declared Sen. Joyce Foster (D-Denver). “I think we’ve let a lot of people down in Colorado. We didn’t increase money to schools; we just didn’t cut any money to schools… We could have done better.”
Of the voter-approved Homestead Exemption Act, Foster said the tax break needs to be means tested because some rebate money is given to “very rich people,” and that money could be allocated to people in need of food and the disabled for services.
“I’ve always had the courage of my convictions,” said Foster. “We as elected officials (need) to have the courage of our convictions and say no to these dollars that are spent in very ridiculous ways.”
Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) agreed with Foster about shallow funding for education and the concept of a needs test for seniors to qualify for the Homestead Exemption. Heath said that he and his wife Josie have resided in their home since 1978, and qualify the tax rebate.
“Fortunately, we don’t need to take it. And many people like Josie and Rollie Heath don’t need to take it,” said Heath, who didn’t say whether he had waived the tax rebate.
The long bill passed a day after more than five hours of debate over proposed amendments, none more divisive than a ban on welfare recipients using state debit cards at ATM machines in strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores to obtain cash with welfare assistance debit cards.
Cadman said his amendment was a step in ending abuses in the welfare assistance program administered by the Department of Human Services. Citing a Denver television news story, Cadman said the debit cards have been used at Elitch Gardens, Disneyland, Las Vegas casinos and local strip clubs.
“There’s no way to justify the abuses in this system,” declared Cadman. “How does a million dollars in transaction fees put one more meal on the plate of a hungry kid? It doesn’t.”
Joint Budget Committee member Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) argued that Cadman’s amendment has been proposed in bills that were defeated – and that it did not qualify as an appropriation in the “long bill” that sets the state budget.
Even if a welfare recipient drew cash from an ATM machine at a bank or grocery store, Steadman said that no one knows if the money would be spent on illegal drugs, liquor or a strip club. Conversely, he said a person might use an ATM in a strip club to buy milk at a convenience store that doesn’t have a cash machine.
Cadman shot back, “56 transactions inside a casino – inside a casino – I can I guarantee you were not all used to buy milk.” But, his amendment failed.
Legislators, who opposed an amendment to fund programs to assist veterans, bristled when they were accused of being apathetic by proponents of the allocation.
The amendment sought to cut the appropriation for the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund by $2 million in order to fund mental health, employment, housing and other services for veterans. The maintenance trust fund interest money is used to repair deteriorating buildings and structures owned by the state.
“To assert that somebody opposing this amendment on the long bill is in opposition to veterans is inaccurate. It’s not true. In fact, it’s absurd,” declared Cadman.
“I know that every single member of this body feels very strongly and supports the veterans and what they do for this country,” said Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton). To accuse anyone who opposes the amendment of being unappreciative of veterans, she said, “is insulting. It’s very insulting.”
Sen. Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins) asserted, “This is a small token in our duty to provide services to veterans…I think we should be ashamed of ourselves for not giving a small measure of support to help veterans who have an inordinate amount of problems.”
“I am not ashamed to vote against this tokenism. We’ve had three members come up here and say this is just a token,” countered Sen.Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs).
A retired U.S. Air Force officer, Lambert said it was wrong to equate a vote against the amendment to a vote against veterans. He said the $2 million would not alleviate the erosion of veterans’ benefits by the federal government, including the recent $2,000 hike in the cost of each veteran’s healthcare premium.
As the Joint Budget Committee’s liaison to the military, Lambert said they have not requested this funding for veterans, and prefer to restore monies to the state Veterans Trust Fund in the future.
Citing previously passed measures to assist veterans, Sen. Linda Newell (D-Littleton) asked, “Are we going to end up with veterans who have (free) license plates if they have car… They might be able to shoot for free or they might even be able to go to the park for free. But my question is will they be homeless in the park?”
The amendment failed.
Sen. Irene Aguilar (D-Denver) pitched an amendment to increase funding for programs to assist developmentally disabled individuals. If the bill passed it would help get the developmentally disabled off waiting lists for services.
“We may have fewer parents wanting to kill their children,” said Aguilar.
However, Lambert argued that the Aguilar’s proposal to shift $2.7 million from the allocation for private prisons would result in the state having to close a prison and slash about 100 jobs – and that would have a detrimental affect on the small communities where prisons are located. Most at risk of being shuttered is the prison in Kit Carson.
He said the amendment should be postponed until next year when both the prison system and developmentally disabled programs have been audited. Those studies would give greater insight, he said, in making future budget decisions.
“I have to commend Senator Aguilar – no one has been a more passionate fighter for the developmentally disabled,” said Sen. Cheri Jahn (D-Wheatridge). But Jahn said that she opposed the amendment because of the potential loss of jobs that would hurt the economy of prison-based communities.
The amendment was defeated.
Senator Brophy moved one of the few successful amendments to increase the appropriation to the Water Resources Division in the Department of Natural Resources by $100,000 to reimburse mileage costs to water commissioners. The funding source was from money in the budget that had not been allocated.
“They’re the water cops,” explained Brophy. He said the commissioners, who have not been fully compensated for mileage, drive their personal vehicles around the state to enforceColorado’s water laws and monitor water systems.
The amended budget now returns to the conference committee to hammer out conflicting amendments passed in the House and Senate to the long bill. After that work is completed, the bill will go to Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper.