Colorado legislative session ends with hard-fought wins, some misses

On Day 120 of the 2017 session, the Democrat-led House sent a signature bill that spares rural hospitals drastic budget cuts and provides $1.8 billion for transportation to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who's expected to sign it

Colorado State Senate chmabers

Empty seats outnumbered spectators in the gallery as work continues on the floor of the Colorado Senate during the body's closing session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Denver. Colorado lawmakers are concluding business for the year with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Perry Buck, Colorado House of Representatives chamber

Colorado State Rep. Perry Buck, R-Loveland, stands and listens to debate on the floor of the House during the body's closing session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Denver. Colorado lawmakers are concluding business for the year with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Dan Pabon, KC Becker

Colorado State Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, back, confers with Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, during debate on a measure on the floor of the House during the body's closing session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Denver. Colorado lawmakers are concluding business for the year with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nancy Todd

Colorado State Senator Nancy Todd, back, confers with colleague on the floor of the Senate during the body's closing session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Denver. Colorado lawmakers are concluding business for the year with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

James Smallwood

Colorado State Senator James Smallwood, R-Sedalia, looks over a piece of legislation before addressing the full Senate during the body's closing session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Denver. Colorado lawmakers are concluding business for the year with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER |  Colorado lawmakers concluded business for the year Wednesday with hard-fought agreements on highways, hospitals and affordable housing — but the split Legislature racked up some misses, too.

On Day 120 of the 2017 session, the Democrat-led House sent a signature bill that spares rural hospitals drastic budget cuts and provides $1.8 billion for transportation to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who’s expected to sign it.

Its many moving pieces prompted legislators of both parties to express distaste or elation before most of them voted for it. That’s because it removes hundreds of millions of dollars that hospitals pay the state to secure federal matching grants from constitutional revenue limits — an ideal anathema, until this year, to the GOP.

The maneuver allows hospitals to receive $528 million in subsidies in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Rural centers that tend to use Medicaid and the uninsured especially depend on that money. And the subsidy formula will stay that way in the future, free of the limits imposed by the 1992 amendment called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Democrats grudgingly accepted Republican demands that the state take $200 million less in revenue next year. They also pledged to find ways to reduce state-agency funding by 2 percent next year — though nothing in the bill holds them to that.

Negotiators also agreed to lease state-owned buildings over 20 years and to raise recreational marijuana taxes to pay for the deal. In another nod to the GOP, small business owners will see a bigger property tax exemption.

“I don’t love this bill. Not even sure I like this bill. But I will vote for this bill,” said Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon, a refrain repeated often under the Capitol dome this week.

Republican Rep. Kevin Van Winkle wondered whether raising the pot tax could make black market sales more attractive. Others objected to taking pot funds from the schools construction and anti-drug programs that Colorado voters were promised when they legalized marijuana in 2012.

GOP Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg introduced the bill after he and other anti-tax Republicans were stunned to learn that Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran were proposing a voter-approved state sales tax hike to raise $3.5 billion for roads.

That measure ultimately died in the Senate, despite its much larger potential to repair and replace Colorado’s aging roads infrastructure.

Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd said the failure of the compromise transportation bill by Grantham and Duran, which died on a party-line vote in a Senate committee, was one of the biggest disappointments of the session and a loss for Aurora.

“It denied the voters the right to be able to vote on a tax increase,” she said, after the session. “That, to me, was very disappointing. If a person chooses not to vote for a tax increase on a personal level that’s fine. But to deny voters the right to vote on an issue of that magnitude? It was very disappointing and, quite honestly, it was quite harmful.

“People are looking for some kind of answer (on transportation) and even if it wasn’t a perfect bill, it would at least have showed we can work together and make some things happen,” Todd added.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, who finished her first year in the Senate after six years in the House, also said the lack of real investment in transportation by the state is a failure of the 2017 Legislative session. By not fully addressing the issue, Fields said it could end up hurting Colorado’s push to lure more businesses into the state.

“There is more work to be done on transportation,” Fields said after the session. “We need to really address it. When you look at the amount of traffic using our roads, we have to give it some kind of relief.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper said during a press conference on Thursday he might be inclined to call the Legislature back for a special session to try again to find additional funding for transportation. Fields and Todd were split on whether or not a special session would allow lawmakers to break through on a deal to fund the state’s roads.

“If we were to have some concentrated time on transportation we might be able to get something done. I do think it might help us,” Fields said. “I have to believe that we can get it done because there are so many people who want to get it done. But what is the right approach is the question.”

For Todd, she said a special session wouldn’t make sense unless there was a clear sign that the failed transportation bill would be able to find Republican support to get it out of committee.

“My feeling is don’t call us into special session unless you know there’s some good indication it will be able to move forward. To go through this again without that is nonsense,” Todd said. “I know there were Republicans who would have voted for the bill if would have gotten to the floor for a vote. But the key his time would be finding Republican supporters in the right committee to help pass it to the floor.”

The session’s other signature bill was required by law: A balanced budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. With its traditional discipline, the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee delivered the $26.8 billion document, anticipating that a hospitals funding measure would follow.

Lawmakers made modest steps to reduce homebuilder liability to encourage more low-cost housing construction. They passed enabling legislation for voter-approved initiatives that allow independent voters to participate in major party primaries. And they raised per-pupil K-12 funding by more than $240.

But they failed to agree on a plan for what to do if the U.S. government scraps the federal health care law.

With the clock ticking late Wednesday, they also failed to agree on a bill that sought to clarify public use of marijuana, which is banned. A deal to renew the Colorado Energy Office at full strength proved elusive.

Lawmakers did pass a bill allowing citizens expedited access to electronic records held by government agencies.

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Associated Press Writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.

Aurora Sentinel reporter Ramsey Scott contributed to this report.

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James Anderson can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jandersonap