State Legislature

Out of power, GOP aims to be 'conscience' at Capitol

Polis' influence becomes apparent in outlook for legislative session


The defiantly conservative voice of state Rep. Patrick Neville hit some resigned notes the day before the state Legislature convened, with the Republican House leader from Castle Rock and a Senate counterpart appearing to accept the uphill battle that lies ahead of them under new Democratic control.

“I think full-day kindergarten, whether I like it or not, is going to happen,” said Neville, the House minority leader, as he referred to the future of schools at the annual Business Legislative Preview put on by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The Jan. 3 event, held in collaboration with the business-advocacy organization Colorado Competitive Council and the Denver Business Journal, saw those Republicans and two Democrats lay out their priorities for the 2019 regular session, which began Jan. 4 and will run roughly four months. That's the part of the year when legislators pass bills.

House Speaker KC Becker, of Boulder, and Denver Sen. Angela Williams spoke for the Democrats. Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, of Greeley, joined Neville.

With his party now in the minority in both houses, Cooke fashioned Republicans as aiming to be “the conscience of the Legislature,” pushing back against the Democrats' clear path to legislation with control of the governor's mansion.

Here's what the lawmakers had to say in downtown Denver about transportation, education and health care.

'Taxes off table'

As with last year's session, the state is riding the wave of rosy predictions of unforeseen revenue, and lawmakers at the event discussed how they'd prefer to spend it, starting with transportation projects.

“Any tax increases are off the table,” Neville said, noting Coloradans voted down Proposition 110's sales tax for transportation funding in November. “People don't want to raise taxes when affordability is an issue.”

The $645 million that lawmakers poured into transportation in 2018 for the following two years is a start, but the Legislature this year will continue to wrestle with how to catch up to a traffic landscape straining under Colorado's growth. As of 2016, Colorado carried a $9 billion need for additional transportation funding through 2025. Major highways, as well as smaller roadways, are in need of updates in multiple parts of the state.

What the Legislature did last year — spending existing revenue rather than raising taxes — would be possible to do this year, too, Neville said.

“That's what they usually say: that if we don't have an increase, it's a cut,” Neville said of budget debates. “So why can't we say that for roads?”

Democrats have favored raising sales taxes to boost transportation funding, but Proposition 110's failure presents a possible roadblock for that route. Last year's law, Senate Bill 1, set the stage for citizens to vote on a bond package for transportation this year.

The state's general-fund revenue forecast was higher by $93 million, or 0.8 percent, compared to the September forecast, according to the Office of State Planning and Budgeting in December. After a strong 14.1 percent increase in fiscal year 2017-18, the revenue is still predicted to grow at a 6.5 percent rate in this fiscal year, after Colorado's economic expansion continued at a healthy pace in 2018, according to the office.

Polis 'made policy clear'

Asked by the moderator if K-12 education needs more funding sources, Cooke put the onus on local school districts to go it alone in asking for tax increases.

“We did give more funding to schools last year,” Cooke said. “I think, obviously, more funding is needed, but we're a local control state.”

In April, hundreds of teachers and education personnel from around Colorado protested at the Capitol, in part over what advocates say is a funding shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. Democratic state legislators spoke at that rally.

“Local districts have the ability to make the argument to their community for more funding,” Cooke said. “Responsibility falls back on, I think, the local districts.”

On the specific question of funding for full-day kindergarten — a rallying cry brought to the recent forefront by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis' campaign — Neville appeared to accept some of the Democrats' agenda as inevitable.

“The governor has made clear (full-day kindergarten) is going to happen,” Neville said.

Republicans would push to make sure that standard also applies to charter schools, Neville said.

Health care still muddled

Not many darts managed to stick last session in debates over how to rein in health-care costs, and from the Jan. 3 event, it's unclear what will emerge this year as viable ideas.

Becker, the House speaker, said health care is “a little bit like whack-a-mole — you think you fix this, but another thing pops up.” She said the Legislature could consider “a variety of things.”

“Surprise billing is something we're looking at,” Becker said. “There's been a proliferation of free-standing emergency rooms all up and down the Front Range that are driving up the cost of health care.”

Democrats also support reinsurance as a way to bring down costs, Becker said. That's the concept of applying for an Affordable Care Act waiver for a fund to help insurers pay for high-cost customers, reducing premiums for others, according to the Colorado Health Institute, a health-policy research nonprofit.

Transparency regarding health-care costs is still a priority for Democrats, Becker said, and the Republican leaders argued that some transparency efforts would only generate reports that would go to the government but aren't useful to the consumer.

“When I walk into a restaurant, I want to know how much the hamburger costs,” Neville said. “Not how much they paid for the ground beef.”


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