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Colorado Budget Beset By Political Land Mines

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(credit: ThinkStock)

(credit: ThinkStock)

DENVER (AP) — Lawmakers preparing Colorado’s budget this year are negotiating a territory packed with political land mines.

They’re the kinds of questions voters see in political ads, especially when control of the Legislature is at stake: Who cares more about seniors? Who’s more willing to help schools? Who’s looking out for state workers?

Having more tax money this year has not made dealing with those topics any easier. Lawmakers learned this week they have about $200 million more to spend because of improved tax receipts, even after budgeting for a contentious property tax break for some seniors.

The Joint Budget Committee continued negotiations Thursday and expect to introduce a budget as soon as next week.

They were stuck on whether to cut state agencies by 2 percent. Democrats and state economists warned the cut will lead to as many as 500 layoffs.

Republicans are skeptical and argue the savings would come from positions already vacant or where an older, higher-paid employee has been replaced with a worker who is paid less. However, Democrats maintain those savings don’t exist because departments have been cut so much in recent years.

The politics coloring the budget were on display Wednesday, when members of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee repeatedly deadlocked on whether to eliminate the proposed reduction to departments. Democrats who also want to increase the state’s contribution to workers’ health, dental and life benefits said they initially agreed on the 2 percent reduction last month when the revenue outlook was unclear. They say the cut is now unnecessary.

Cue the finger-pointing.

“I just don’t know why we’re trying to balance the budget on the back of our state workers,” Democratic Sen. Mary Hodge, a JBC member, said before one of the votes.

“I don’t believe that,” responded Republican Rep. Jon Becker, a JBC member. He said he understood both parties were having trouble agreeing, but added, “Stop saying that this is us balancing the budget on the backs of state workers because that’s not true at all.”

During the debate, Republicans suggested reducing cut to 1 percent, while adding funding for schools, colleges, and pension and dental assistance to seniors. Soon after the last of the 3-3 votes, the GOP House press office immediately sent out a statement from Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, the JBC chair.

“It’s irresponsible for Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee to withhold funding for the state’s neediest seniors and students,” she said.

Hodge’s statement on state workers was reminiscent of what Republicans said when they were lobbying to keep a nearly $100 million property tax break that the lawmakers from both parties eliminated in past years to balance the budget.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Democrats said the state could not afford the full tax, and that it should go only to seniors who need it, instead of also going to wealthy seniors. The voter-approved tax-exemption allows homeowners 65 and older who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years to deduct 50 percent of the first $200,000 of property value from their taxes.

“I don’t know whether people don’t like seniors,” Gerou said before lawmakers decided this week not to pursue another elimination of the tax.

It’s a crucial election year. Republicans control the House by one vote, and Democrats have a five-vote advantage in the Senate, and recent state redistricting could change the political landscape.

Gerou said political maneuvering to make one party look bad with voters is not driving the debate and that one of the reasons she likes being in the JBC is she likes “policy better than politics.”

“If press offices decide to tell a story a particular way, I can’t control that. And I really don’t care what their story is,” she said. “What I care about is closing the budget.”

Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, another JBC member, said she is not worried about Republicans casting her budget votes in a negative light. At one point during Wednesday’s tense debate, Levy asked Gerou why she wanted to cut hundreds of state employees. On Thursday, Levy said she “wasn’t playing games” with the budget.

“That wasn’t what I was trying to do. I was just trying to address what seems to be the main issue that we need to resolve before we can finalize the budget. I wasn’t playing games,” she said.

By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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