Legislators reflect & spar at Issue Monday

(’76 Contributor) Four members of the Colorado General Assembly, two from each party and each house, reflected on the recently completed 2010 session before a crowded room at this month’s Issue Monday forum, hosted by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.

Democrat State Senator Betty Boyd, first to speak, announced that she was pleased with the legislative session’s results. The legislature fulfilled its one requirement, balancing Colorado’s budget by cutting spending in K-12 education and closing holes in tax revenue. Colorado’s government also created jobs by increasing the renewable energy standard to 30% by 2020, passing a clean jobs bill, and giving more flexibility, though cash, to institutions of higher education. The Medicaid efficiencies act fought Medicaid fraud, a healthcare transparency act allowed individuals to learn more about healthcare, and the government increased general equity by instituting gender fairness in insurance rates and campaign finance reform.

After this positive general picture, Democrat Representative Mark Ferrandino promised a more specific discussion. He praised bipartisan criminal justice sentencing reform, and mentioned the fact that Colorado’s prison population is decreasing. He discussed two bills that he sponsored, the 21st century SMART government act, an attempt to maximize the performance of tax dollars, and the cap on pay-day lenders. He explained that Colorado’s budget breaks down to three major sections. Colorado spends 53% of its budget on education, 35% of it on Healthcare, and 15% on Criminal Justice. Last year, the budget fell short by 200 billion dollars, while many cuts to K-12 education, Medicaid provider rates, senior property tax exemptions, operating expenses and the number of state employees promise better returns for next year.

Republican State Senator Josh Penry (pictured below) continued the positive note by praising his fellows as good legislators, but he brought a sobering perspective on the state session. Mentioning that these times present great changes and challenges, he explained the reforms to PERA(the Public Employees Retirement Association). Currently, the association operates on a 30 billion dollar unfunded liability. The association lacks resources, and the reform proposal did not gain unanimous support. Nevertheless, this session of the Colorado Congress cut benefits to existing retirees, cutting the unfunded liability in half, but failing to eliminate it. Penry also lamented the session’s lack of leadership on the budget, explaining how the Democrat majority raised taxes, repealing many exemptions, most notably the sales tax exemption on energy. Even businesses that supported tax increases in the past opposed this unprecedented increase. Penry ended on a negative note, explaining that many “cuts” merely shifted the finances of the government, and the general fund increased by 6 %.

Last, but certainly not least, Republican State Representative Amy Stephens (pictured below) continued this negative litany, to the delight of the crowd. According to Rep. Stephens, businesses described this session as the most hostile to business in Colorado history. Businesses have been “paying their fair share,” in the tax increases for the past four years. Nevertheless this session of Congress produced some successes, notably legislation against medical marijuana, cuts to PERA, flexibility in higher education, and accountability in the evaluation of teachers. Even so, she agreed with Senator Penry that the number of state employees increased to over 2,000. Many ridiculous bills that should not have been entertained passed. Stephens noted that jobs are the key to fixing the economy, and that pressure on industry will only increase unemployment. She attacked the session’s energy policy, which gave the green economy breaks, while attacking oil and gas. Raising energy quotas, she warned, will put people out of work. Socialism, for all its good intentions, only makes things worse, Rep. Stephens concluded.

Betty Boyd responded to this negative view noting that the session effected only 12 of 100 existing tax credits, and that oil and gas, in addition to green energy, gained a boost from the session. Only coal lost. She also praised Colorado’s Medicaid program as the leanest in the country, noting that 70% of its clientele are children, while 70% of its funds support the elderly.

Candidates opened the question and answer session with the education reform bill. While Rep. Ferrandino stressed the importance of evaluating teachers and principals, Sen. Boyd argued that students need to have some “skin” in the CSAP game, an incentive to do well. Senator Penry brought up the question of tenure, stating that the government should be able to boot an underperforming teacher at will, but admitting that this bill, which involves a time limit of 1000 days, is a sizeable achievement.

Centennial Institute moderator John Andrews noted that two bills passed by dividing the opposing party. The Republicans backed the teacher tenure bill, and the democrats supported the coal bill. Penry noted the large amount of shale finds flooding the gas market, and Rep. Stephens declared that this bill did not represent Obama’s mandates, but a compromise that supported states’ rights.

Amy Stephens voiced her concern for one bill in particular, which would provide transparency on the origins of gifts, grants and donations which fund the state government. She noted that, if early childhood education was founded by Focus on the Family, many complaints would arise, and that citizens should be concerned about the businesses that fund the government.

Mike Fallon, candidate for U.S. Representative of Colorado’s First District, voiced his concern that cutting the reimbursement to Medicaid drives people from primary care into the hospital. As a doctor, he noted that, as costs for private insurance increase, thanks to Medicaid cuts, citizens opt out of insurance, visiting the Emergency Room for basic care. This shift decreases the cost that the government has to pay for healthcare, while increasing its cost to the consumer and the market. Mark Ferrandino responded by stating that we need higher reimbursement cuts, rather than rate cuts. In short, the government should not fully reimburse doctors for caring for Medicaid patients. This did not address Fallon’s complaint, and voiced the very practice that Fallon complained against.

Finally, John Andrews called on each of the statesmen to explain why their party should be in charge in 2010. Amy Stephens argued that the budget crisis calls for true leadership, and that Republicans serve business, which will boost the economy. Mark Ferrandino mentioned that the last six years of democratic control saw investment in transportation and infrastructure, that Colorado’s unemployment rate of 8 % falls short of the national 10%, and that the economy has turned around, with more people entering the market. Josh Penry argued that every democrat is running on past tax increases which hurt the energy market, making Colorado, which once possessed the best oil and gas environment, the worst environment for such energy sources. In contrast, Betty Boyd argued that the democrats created jobs, and that the economy is turning around. She explains that, when a party is in power, it has to govern, which is more difficult than complaining about the mistakes of the other party.

Although these four legislators participated in the same session of the Colorado General Assembly, all have taken a different view of the events that occurred. Some disagree on basic facts, such as whether or not the budget had been balanced. Other disagreements, while agreeing on the facts, such as which bills passed or failed to pass, arise from contrasting ideas on what helps the economy. The Democrats Betty Boyd and Mark Ferrandino pointed to government jobs and praised the session for producing more employment opportunities. The Republicans Amy Stephens and Josh Penry noted the displeasure of businesses that will have to pay higher taxes in the future to cover up for government irresponsibility. The continuing economic crisis seems to indicate which side is in the right.

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