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General Assembly closes out work on 2010-11 State budget

Haxtun-Flemming Herald of Haxtun, Colorado

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Last week, the General Assembly closed out its work on the State's 2010-11 budget, and Governor John Hickenlooper signed 22 bills into law, including 21 bills that will balance the State's 2010-11 budget, authored by the Joint Budget Committee that includes Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan. The last eight bills from the balancing package last week headed to the governor's desk.

With the legislative session now reaching its 60-day halfway point, setting the State's budget for 2011 12 is starting to take center stage and will likely dominate much of the General Assembly's attention for the rest of the session.

Hickenlooper has proposed cutting $375 million from K-12 education and $36 million from higher education as part of his efforts to reduce the 2011-12 state budget by more than $1 billion. Education leaders claim fhe proposed cuts could cost as much as 6,000 teacher jobs.

But the cuts to K-12 have rankled members of Hickenlooper's own party, who have spent the last several weeks finding ways to reduce the cut.

Two weeks ago, Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Long-mont, asked the chairs of the Senate committees to take another look at the budgets of the State agencies for which they have oversight, in hopes they could find as much as $200 million in savings to offset the K-12 budget cuts.

Shaffer told reporters last week that a number of ideas have been floated from the committee chairs for the savings but was still in the process of having those ideas vetted before releasing them to the public.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, both JBC members, recently revealed their idea to help with the cuts. They introduced Senate Bill 11-184, on tax amnesty, that they hope will bring in up to $15 million in back taxes. The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday on a four to three party-line vote and was sent to the Senate

Appropriations Committee. The bill is drawing opposition from Republicans over a provision to require the State to report on corporate and special interest tax breaks and exemptions, an idea floated in a bill sponsored earlier in the session by Ferrandino that gained no traction in the House.

Tax amnesty is not a new idea. In 2003, JBC members sponsored a bill on tax amnesty that brought in $20 million to help with the 2003-04 state budget crisis.

The current JBC has been working on the 2011-12 budget for several weeks already, setting state agency budgets through its figure-setting process. Their end result will be the Long Appropriations Bill that is due to the Legislature at the end of the month. However, some figures may change before then: on March 19, the JBC will receive updated revenue figures from economists with the General Assembly's Legislative Council and the governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

March 13-19 is National Ag Week, and Hickenlooper has declared March 16 to be Colorado Ag Day. Several activities are planned at the state capitol, including a presentation of food from local farms to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Denver. Another donation of food and cash, valued at $55,000, will be made to Food Bank of the Rockies, and will include 130,000 eggs from the Colorado Egg Producers Association, a pallet of sugar from the Colorado Sugarbeet Growers, and 48,000 pounds of flour from the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers. "This donation will provide over 100,000 meals to hungry Coloradans struggling everyday to put food on their plates," according to a statement from the Colorado Ag Council.

A noontime press conference to highlight the contributions of Colorado's agricultural community will take place on the west steps of the Capitol, featuring Ag Commissioner John Salazar and other State, local and federal ag officials. In other action at the capitol: On March 7, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee unanimously approved HB 1004. Under state law, county clerks require proof that an agricultural motor vehicle, such as a farm truck or truck tractor, is used by someone whose primary business is agriculture. Under HB 1004, that requirement is lifted if the vehicle is used for production on a farm or ranch that is classified as agricultural for property tax purposes. HB 1004, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further action.

And finally...

Under the heading of things you don't see everyday: a bill that passes its committee without its sponsor even being there.

But that's what happened on March 9 in the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, which had just one bill on its agenda: House Bill 11-1187, concerning employees at Northeastern Junior College.

The sponsor of HB 1187, Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, was nowhere to be found. Capitol sergeants searched high and low, but as it turns out Brophy had gone home in pain from back problems.

As it turned out, it didn't matter anyway. The business committee decided to allow witness testimony for the bill, and that brought NJC President Lance Bolton to the table. HB 1187 would allow NJC to hire employees for the Northeastern 18 golf course and Plainsman Grill restaurant that together made up the former Sterling Country Club. The country club was donated to the college in 2009.

Currently, the facility has 33 employees: three managers, 13 student workers who are primarily employed as waitstaff, and 33 temporary employees who work part-time in the kitchen and the golf course's pro shop.

The restaurant has high turnover, which is true for most restaurants, Bolton told the committee. "We need the flexibility to hire very quickly" to deal with that turnover. HB 1187 would allow NJC to hire employees for the facility who would not be covered under the state personnel system. Currently, the college can hire the temporary employees for a maximum of six months, but after the six months are up, State law requires that they either be let go, or their positions would have to be covered under the state personnel system.

The contracts for the temporary employees expire at the end of March, Bolton said.

Despite Brophy's absence, the committee decided to go ahead and vote on the bill anyway, and passed it unanimously, 7-0. Longtime capitol observers, including this reporter, can't recall that a committee has ever passed a bill without its sponsor being there.

For the bill's next step, the committee had the option of sending HB 1187 to the Senate's "consent calendar," which means it would be passed without debate, but Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, quipped during the March 9 hearing that "I'd like Sen. Brophy to present his bill at some point." When it comes up, Brophy will likely face some razzing from his Senate colleagues over his absence.

That evening, Brophy was in Colorado Springs for a public forum with the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting, of which he is a member. Brophy told this reporter he had gone to his Capitol Hill apartment to take some Tylenol and lie down for a little while and missed his alarm. "I'm so talented that I can pass bills by sheer force!" he joked, but he also admitted he felt foolish for missing the hearing.

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Original Publication Date: March 16, 2011

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