DENVER (AP) – Republicans are back in charge in Colorado’s House, vowing to slash spending and stick to conservative principles as the Legislature opened its 2011 session Wednesday.
The top items on their agenda: jobs and the economy. Both are a high priority for Democrats, too, as leaders from both parties promised to work together while warning of fiscal belt-tightening to cover a $1 billion deficit.
They won’t have much choice but to work together. After the 100 state lawmakers took their oaths, Republicans had a thin one-seat House majority. Democrats control the Senate by a comfortable margin, giving Colorado its first divided Legislature in a decade.
Leaders from both parties vowed to work together in typical opening-day camaraderie. But lawmakers on each side warned that tough decisions on spending lay ahead — a difficult task made harder by divided party control.
“The bill for kicking the can down the road has come due,” new Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty told the chamber.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Kopp of Littleton acknowledged it won’t be easy.
“Colorado’s government must build a low-tax policy framework. Getting there will require some teamwork from both sides of the aisle,” Kopp said.
Democrats opened the session in a less optimistic mood. They warned that spending cuts that hurt schools will end up hurting Colorado, and Democrats pleaded with their colleagues to take spending cuts seriously.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat from Longmont, urged his colleagues to spare education from deep cuts but acknowledged, “we are staring down the barrel of millions of dollars of cuts to our K-12 and higher education systems.”
In the House, new Democratic Leader Sal Pace won applause from the Democratic side, but not the GOP side, when he warned that not all Democrats will agree to all spending cuts. Pace warned that “to neglect programs or slash services without method … are not acceptable to the people of Colorado.”
Pace also cautioned lawmakers not to “demonize people because of the their skin color,” a possible reference to lawmakers who’s like to see an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration.
The sniping went on from there.
Some House Democrats raised issue with a minor change — the fact that some committee names were changed by the new Republican majority. The words “energy” and “labor” were stripped from two committees, and Democrats groused that GOP leaders didn’t adequately explain why.
“They basically gave us the middle finger. I think this is a poor way to start out,” Democratic Rep. Andy Kerr of Lakewood told reporters after the first session. Republicans insisted the name changes weren’t political.
It’ll be a rocky session for sure. Among the tasks facing lawmakers:
–Budget cuts: Lawmakers have to decide whether to agree to a $19.1 billion budget proposed by former Gov. Bill Ritter in November. That proposal included more cuts for public education and the state prison system. Already lawmakers have trimmed a cumulative $4.5 billion over the last four years because of declining tax revenues.
–Redistricting: Census results are in, and that means lawmakers will have to redraw congressional and legislative lines to keep districts the same size. The job has to be done every 10 years, and it sparks some of the most fiery partisan wrangling because both parties try to use population changes to maximize their chances at the polls.
–Marijuana: Lawmakers will be asked to further refine rules for medical marijuana. They’ll also consider the nation’s first marijuana-impairment standard for drivers.
–Spending: House Republicans want to see a new spending limit and making it harder to tap the state’s rainy-day funds of money. House Democrats say they’ll propose new spending procedures to require lawmakers to identify how they’d pay for new programs or tax cuts.
Lawmakers seem resigned to a gritty session haggling over spending cuts and political lines.
“It won’t be easy, and we will make many tough decisions,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer’s already presided over one tough decision. Democratic Sen. Suzanne Williams, who was involved in a fatal crash in Texas last month, lost a leadership post on the Senate’s transportation committee. Williams remains a member of the committee, and she didn’t address questions about the accident Wednesday.
– By Steven K. Paulson and Kristen Wyatt, AP Writers
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