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Legislative Year: 2017 Change
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Colorado Eyes & Ears »

The 2017 legislative session may have made history as the one that cleared several logjams at once – all with one big bill. 

Whether the passage of Senate Bill 17-267 becomes a template for future compromises or will turn out to be a one-off remains to be seen. But it’s somewhat unexpected success is a testimony to what can get done when Democrats team up with moderate and some conservative Republicans.  

SB17-267, or course, is the bill with the big umbrella title of  “Concerning the Sustainability of Rural Colorado.” That umbrella ultimately covered these main provisions: 

  • Reclassification of the Hospital Provider Fee so that it won’t count against the state’s annual revenue limit, plus a compromise upward adjustment of that limit. The change saves hospitals, especially rural ones, from cuts that would have happened otherwise. 
  • Various other Medicaid changes, including increased client copays for some services. 
  • A lease-purchase program under which state buildings will be “sold” and those proceeds used for highway projects and building maintenance and construction. Part of the transportation money is earmarked for rural counties. The bill creates and permanent commitment on the state’s General Fund to help pay leases.
  • An increase in marijuana tax rates, with revenues split between the General fund and schools. 
  • A one-time $30 million boost to rural school districts.
  • Tax credits to offset business personal property taxes.

The bill is the latest in a long series of “creative” solutions the legislature has used to deal with the conflicting constraints in the state constitution, including Referendum C, declaring state colleges to be enterprises, the FASTER vehicle fees, creation of the negative factor in K-12 funding and the original Hospital Provider Fee. None of those were permanent fixes, and even lawmakers who voted for SB17-267 agreed that it won’t be either.

While the bill provides some increases for transportation, other measures that proposed larger amounts of funding failed, primarily because of GOP opposition to proposed tax increases that would have required voter approval. Both parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper think more money is needed for transportation, but everyone is happy that there was a little movement.

Other issues

Progress was made in a more traditional way on another long-unresolved issue, contractor liability for construction defects in condominium projects. Rather than attempting to pass one big bill, various narrower measures were introduced. Most were defeated, but a significant bill to set new requirements for how condo owners can sue did pass.

On other matters, lawmakers passed bills to give charter schools more access to local district revenues, set rules for how unaffiliated voters can vote in party primaries, modernize state open records law and start reforming the youth corrections system. Some modest measures to address the opioid epidemic became law.

Since the voters legalized marijuana, bills to tweak pot laws have become a staple of every legislative session. This year was no exception, and lawmakers also attempted to go on a spending spree of marijuana tax revenues until reined in by the Joint Budget Committee. A high-profile bill to create rules for marijuana clubs (amended out of the bill early) and further define “public consumption” died at the very end of the session.

One notable failure was a bill to reauthorize and redefine the mission of the Colorado Energy Office. That died on the last day after the Democratic House and Republican Senate couldn’t reach agreement.

As usual in a divided legislature, ideological “statement” bills didn’t fare well, including Republican measures on social issues like abortion and Democratic bills on energy conservation and economic security.

The budget

Bipartisan cooperation and creative thinking are more deeply embedded in the Joint Budget Committee than the legislature has a whole, and this year’s panel displayed those skills in crafting the 2017-18 budget package.

The budget includes $28.3 billion from all funds, a 4.2 percent increase, and $10.6 billion from the General Fund, a 6.7 percent increase. The committee managed to avoid some of the more uncomfortable cuts proposed in the governor’s original request.

The committee was able to make modest increases in state employee pay and rates for providers of various medical and social services.

State workers will receive a 1.75 percent across-the-board increase plus a .75 percent increase in funds for merit pay. An overall increase in community provider rates was approved, equal to 60 percent of the state employee pay raise. Some providers will receive additional increases. Additional staffing was approved for youth services.

But the budget requires shifting some severance tax revenues and highway funds to the General Fund.

Two big issues, the Hospital Provider Fee and the K-12 Negative Factor, were moving targets. The committee proposed to cut 2017-18 Hospital Provider Fee collections by $264 million, thereby eliminating the need to pay TABOR refunds. The revenue cut for hospitals would be more than $500 million, given the loss of matching federal funds. That plan became a big impetus for passing SB17-267.

The committee originally proposed a Negative Factor of $906 million but was able to trim that to $881 million before sending the budget package to the full legislature. But updated estimates of local district revenues, which came after the budget passed, enabled lawmakers to hold the Negative Factor to $828 million, the same as in 2016-17.

By the numbers

There were 681 bills introduced during the 2017 session, with 270 of those postponed indefinitely, defeated on floor votes or allowed to die on the calendar when lawmakers adjourned May 10.

See the list of all bills – with votes – here, and the list of dead bills here.

For perspective, there were 686 bills introduced in 2016, of which 288 didn’t make it.

-- Todd Engdahl

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