DENVER (AP) – If the checkbook keeps coming up red, maybe it’s time to change the pen.
Colorado politicians are debating big changes to how the state spends taxes as they hunker down into their most pressing problem — another year of dwindling budgets and painful spending cuts.
No one in the Capitol seems to doubt that Colorado needs to make big changes to how it manages the public pocketbook. Of course, various opinions on how to best change the budgeting process are drawing early heat.
The Republican House on Tuesday voted to ask the budget-writing committee to further ratchet back its spending plan for next year. The GOP hurried through a plan to ask the Joint Budget Committee to reduce by 2.75 percent — or about $195 million — what it plans to spend next fiscal year.
“It’s time that we take a more honest look at building a more responsible budget,” said Rep. Brian DelGrosso, a Loveland Republican who leads the Finance Committee and sponsored the change.
Democrats scoffed at the GOP’s lowered budget plan, calling it window dressing to artificially lower what the state can spend. The proposed cutback, which would simply be a recommendation to budget-writers, stands little chance in the Democratic Senate.
Democrats also angrily rejected suggestions that they don’t care about budget deficits because they opposed the GOP’s plans. The short debate Tuesday sparked a heated exchange between Democrats and Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty, who at one point turned off a lawmaker’s microphone to shut him up.
Another Democrat, Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, of Niwot, told her colleagues, “I resent the implication that because I do not support this … that I don’t care about the taxpayers.”
Democrats have plans of their own to change how Colorado spends money.
House members are talking about a new pay-as-you-go budgeting plan that would force lawmakers to identify how they’d pay for spending increases or tax cuts. So-called “paygo” budgeting is common in many states and has been used intermittently in Congress.
“It’s a reasonable approach,” said Rep. Mark Farrandino, D-Denver. “We as a Legislature shouldn’t be digging the hole deeper as we go through.”
Some Democrats support paygo budgeting because it forces small-government Republicans to identify how they’d pay for tax cuts. Republicans say it won’t happen, though.
“A bad idea in Washington is a bad idea in Colorado,” McNulty said about paygo budgeting. “I have no interest in it.”
Scott Pattison, head of the nonpartisan National Association of State Budget Officers, a Washington-based association of state finance officers, said the practice isn’t uncommon.
Paygo budgeting sometimes has different names but is a popular mechanism in state legislatures to inject budget transparency, he said. However, Pattison added that Colorado and virtually all states cannot run deficits, unlike the federal government, so states have de facto paygo budgeting anyway.
“It fits so much better on a federal level,” Pattison said. “On the state side, it’s pretty much a zero-sum game already.”
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has his own ideas about how to change Colorado’s budgeting process. He’s talking about writing the state budget less often, perhaps every other year, as some states do. The change, he says, could give Colorado officials a longer view when balancing the state checkbook.
Hickenlooper hasn’t yet given lawmakers any specifics about his plan, but he hinted he wants to see longer-term budgets in his first State of the State address earlier this month.
“We propose looking at the state budget challenge from a multiyear perspective, just like any business would do,” Hickenlooper said.
Lawmakers from both parties said this week they’re willing to consider biannual budgets but wouldn’t take positions until they see Hickenlooper’s details.
Those are just the prominent ideas about how to give Colorado a financial makeover. Other ideas circulating include a Republican senator’s plan to start a new reserve fund when tax receipts perk up and a House Democrat’s proposal to require fiscal bills to include “poverty impact statements.”
The session’s just getting going, but already there’s little disagreement from either party that the Legislature’s biggest challenge will be overhauling how it writes budgets.
“The most pressing question for us is how we balance investments and make hard cuts,” said Democratic Sen. Michael Johnston, who leads the Senate Finance Committee.
-By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)