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Insights: In the Capitol's political theater, the budget is a passion play

April 2, 2017 Updated: April 2, 2017 at 2:12 pm
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photo - Denver, CO, United States - September 23, 2005: The Colorado State Capitol Building is the home of the Colorado General Assembly and the offices of the Governor of Colorado and Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. The building was constructed in the 1890s from Colorado white granite, and opened for use in November 1894. The distinctive gold dome consists of real gold leaf
Denver, CO, United States - September 23, 2005: The Colorado State Capitol Building is the home of the Colorado General Assembly and the offices of the Governor of Colorado and Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. The building was constructed in the 1890s from Colorado white granite, and opened for use in November 1894. The distinctive gold dome consists of real gold leaf 

The debate over a $26.8 billion state budget going on now under the gold dome in Denver is, without doubt, political theater.

More specifically, it's a passion play. And as a gathering of partisan disciples goes, probably 11 out of 12 are true believers. You can hardly get elected these days if you're not.

The minority party in each chamber - the Democrats in the Senate, the Republicans in the House - gets kicked around all session. Their bills go to what are known as kill committees, Their amendments are DOA before they're read out loud.

But never are the lights brighter on the Capitol stage than when a lawmaker is trying to expense his or her favorite cause on the taxpayers' credit card. If the state budget is governing's Last Supper, the main course is pulled pork.

Senators, mostly Democrats, tried to amend the budget 45 times last week. House members, mostly Republicans, will try to do the same this coming week. A small bipartisan collection of legislators called the Joint Budget Committee wrote the first draft of the budget, and a small bipartisan collection of legislators called a conference committee will write the last draft. Everything in between is improv.

Last week senators asked for money for a wind energy study, a helpline for doctors helping patients end their lives, millions of bucks some Republicans wanted for the movie industry, money for access to contraception and one young Boulder senator's fight against the pine beetle.

The Senate started its 10-hour debate with full-day kindergarten vs. prison inmates, mano a mano, and it was that kind of day.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a likely candidate for Congress sooner or later, wanted to take $25.1 million of public money out of private prisons in Colorado to send $36.8 million to the Department of Education.

"It won't be the least expensive thing we do, but it might be the most important thing we do," he said to the assembled party in the Capitol's upper room.

That would mean 1,205 convicts would either have to move into other overcrowded prisons or go free, Republicans replied,

"We can't afford to make an untenable situation even more untenable and unsafe," said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, wearing a tie with the imprint of the American flag and good ol' American cash.

Kindergarteners metaphorically got shanked in the budgetary workout yard. Kerr and Sen. Matt Jones, D-Boulder, came back with a pitch to take $15 million out of private prisons for the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

Kerr started out by noting the "supposed draining of the swamp" in Washington. Double snap at you, Donald Trump.

"I think we're going to need to step in," Jones said. "We haven't followed Washington's lead. We need to keep going on our own."

NREL aid would have let go 725 inmates, so Republicans said no, again.

Meals on Wheels, rightly or wrongly, became a symbol of opposition to Trump's budget three weeks ago. A fuller examination scaled back the expected impact quite a bit, however.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, tried to use $50,000 from the state budget to feed 62,000 more meals through the private nonprofit that gets a mix of federal, state, local and private money.

"Seniors understand what it's like to live on a budget," Fields said of Meals on Wheels qualifiers. "They live on a fixed income, and they have severe food insecurity. If it wasn't for Meals on Wheels, some of these people wouldn't have a meal."

No dice.

State money for the National Endowment for the Arts, called the Big Bird Amendment, had so brief a time on stage, Democrats never even said out loud how much money they were asking for. Instead, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, quoted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when faced with cutting money for the arts during World War II, "Then what are we fighting for?"

Republicans gave it the big bird.

Lambert at stage right in the speaker's well, in a British accent, paraphrased Churchill's request for parliament to enter the war, "On the basis of 'blood, tears, toil and sweat,' I urge a no vote."

And ... scene.

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