During much of the last decade December has greeted Colorado legislators with gloomy revenue forecasts that confirm there won’t be enough money to pay for the spending they budgeted in April. Drastic budget reductions ensue in order to balance the budget in final few months of the fiscal year.
Generally, legislators respond as if trapped in the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. Year-after-year they pass budgets in April based on revenue estimates that they surely know will require severe pruning come December. (Unlike Congress, the Colorado legislature is constitutionally required to balance its budget.)
This week, House Republicans — back in the majority after six years in the cheap seats — signaled that this practice will change, arguing for a spending target nearly $200 million below the more conservative of two forecasts by government economists.
“Making the decision now to spend less will allow us to craft a responsible state budget,” said Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “It also allows the governor and the legislature to avoid the harmful last-minute cuts experienced over the last several years because of a lack of planning.”
Typically, legislators choose between forecasts from their own Legislative Council economists and the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget. Those forecasts often differ drastically. Such is the case with the most recent forecast. The legislature’s economists project a $30 million reduction in general fund spending while economists for outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter incredibly anticipate a $561 million increase.
McNulty and Republican budget leaders point to recent history and argue that the legislature should learn from the past, not blindly repeat it: In 2008-09, actual revenues were 17 percent lower than projected the previous December. In 2009-10, actual revenues were 11 percent lower than December projections.
Not since Gov. Bill Owens used his veto pen to trim $228 million from the 2002-03 budget have lawmakers seen the type of proactive budgeting that Republicans are advocating.
Instead, the Ritter administration’s budget office was routinely “a day late and a dollar short.” Never were they more embarrassingly clueless than in September 2008. As the stock market tanked and the economy faltered, Ritter actually chided the legislature’s economists as “pretty significantly wrong” for predicting that revenues would fall.
For the next two years, minority Republicans argued for budgets that spent less than projected revenues, but majority Democrats preferred the Thelma and Louise approach, throttling the engines even as they headed for a cliff. And each year, the legislature and governor slammed on the brakes at the last minute with spending cuts and budget gimmicks because they had rejected more prudent choices earlier.
The good news is that Republicans aren’t standing alone this time. In the House, six Democrats joined Republicans to vote for the lower spending target, passing it by a healthy 39-26 margin.
In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Finance Committee passed the resolution unanimously without amendments. However, Senate Majority Leader John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) then issued a smarmy letter to McNulty – simultaneously releasing it to the press – essentially demanding that he identify $195 million in cuts.
Morse’s cynical ploy is the same tired game played by those perpetually addicted to big government: demand that Republicans take unilateral responsibility for passing a balanced budget while those Democrats who still choose to ignore the last election continue to make promises to children and seniors that they know they cannot keep.
Passing a balanced budget is the responsibility of the entire legislature and governor in a deliberative process that unfolds over several months — not the sole responsibility of House Republicans, much less the Speaker, to perform on command like a trained dog.
House Republicans have acknowledged the obvious fact that it’s more prudent – although perhaps not politically expedient – to budget conservatively and hope to be pleasantly surprised by a budget surplus than to make foolish promises and be forced into severe cuts and budget shell games later.
Mark Hillman served as Senate Majority Leader and State Treasurer. He is now Republican National Committeeman for Colorado, and a Centennial Institute Fellow. To read more or comment, go to www.MarkHillman.com.