Senate panel waters down budget bill

March 16, 2005
DENVER - A measure aimed at fixing Colorado’s long-term budget problems advanced Tuesday without an agreement between the governor and lawmakers. Backers of House Bill 1194 — approved 6-1 by the Senate Finance Committee — say they will continue to work toward a bipartisan deal that would allow the state to keep surplus tax revenue to spend on key government services that are in jeopardy.
The bill goes to the full Senate. Such a proposal would have to be approved by voters in November, and a buy-in from Republicans, Democrats and the governor is seen as a nec- essary ingredient if the ballot measure is to have any chance. “I am confident we will be at agreement very soon,” said Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Loveland, one of two senators sponsoring HB1194. Even without an agreement on the measure, members of the committee moved it in the direction of a compromise. The original version of the bill approved by the House last week would have cut taxes by $1.6 billion over 10 years and asked voters for permission to keep $8.3 billion during the same period. Gov. Bill Owens and Republican legislators said that is too long and would take too much money out of Coloradans’ pockets. Tuesday, lawmakers removed the tax cut from HB1194 and shortened the time period from 10 years to six years. The move would allow government to keep $4.1 billion in surplus revenue that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers. Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, who is sponsoring the bill with Johnson, said the new version is simpler to understand. “A lot of the questions that have come to me . . . are ‘Why would you cut our taxes if you say we don’t have enough revenue coming in?’” Groff said. Owens has said he would agree to a five-year deal without a tax cut but has kept his distance from the bill. Lawmakers from both parties agree Colorado is facing a crisis because of spending and revenue limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, approved by voters in 1992. TABOR’s limits are keeping government from recovering from the recent recession even though surplus tax dollars are flowing in. Colorado faces a $234 million shortfall for the 2005-06 budget year and a $188.1 million shortfall for the year after that. A growing number of private groups are calling on lawmakers to do something. “(We) strongly support the general assembly placing a realistic measure on the November ballot,” said Chuck Berry, the former speaker of the House from Colorado Springs who heads the Colorado Association for Commerce and Industry. “We believe it has to be a moderate proposal, where you don’t appear to ask for too much.” Berry stopped short of endorsing HB1194 and asked lawmakers to compromise. Opposition is coming from those who believe it doesn’t go far enough. “The measure you have before you is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” said Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Institute, a group that has suggested repealing TABOR.
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