Legislature should move beyond polarized debates in budget process
The Colorado Legislature has busied itself with divisive, if timely, social policy issues during the early months of the 2013 session. Debate about gun control, civil unions and in-state college tuition for some immigrant students have drawn stark lines in the state Capitol that are increasingly indelible, and apparently seeping into the primary business lawmakers must attend to: setting the state's budget. Coloradans would be better served if Democrats and Republicans set aside their smugness and bitterness, respectively, and got to work.
With comfortable margins in both the House and Senate, Democrats have been unashamed in pursuing a bold agenda that drew Republican rancor right out of the legislative gate. The momentum on both sides of the aisle continued unabated, through debates about gun control, where Republicans, including Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, complained that Democrats manipulated the process to limit opponents' opportunity to speak against the measure. It picked up speed in the discussion about in-state college tuition for immigrant high school students and did not slow down during debates about legislation allowing civil unions in Colorado. Bad feelings are growing with each legislative milestone.
That should not, however, flavor the budgetary process. For the first time in nearly five years, lawmakers are not left agonizing about where to trim millions from the state budget. With an economic recovery boosting revenues, the budgetary process is focused more on where to backfill than where to cut. Even in less divisive climates, this is an exercise in position-staking and politicking, but given the polarity of the Colorado Legislature, that atmosphere is intensified. It need not be the case.
There are some clear priorities, including increased funding for mental-health services, that should be bipartisan, and lawmakers would best represent their constituents by resisting the temptation to politicize those sorts of decisions. The same is true for increasing funding for air tankers used in fighting wildfires. These are not partisan issues, per se, and constructing them as such unnecessarily draws out and makes contentious a discussion that should and easily could be isolated to nuts and bolts.
While budget processes are inherently political, they need not be vindictive. Republican efforts to add an across-the-board 5 percent cut to all state departments smacks of such intention, as is a Democratic attempt to adorn the budget with an amendment adding 65 inspectors to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Neither of these moves does anything to ease tensions or expedite the budgeting process.
Difficult - and unprecedented - as it might be, Colorado lawmakers could take the relatively happy budgetary situation they are maneuvering as an opportunity to mend some partisan fences. There is plenty of blame to go around for the level to which tempers have flared, both in the current session and carried over from the recent era of split control in the Legislature. How refreshing it would be for Democrats and Republicans to leave all of that in the past and move forward in the state's best interest. Spending money, after all, is legislators' primary task. They ought to get on with it in a practicable fashion.