State lawmakers brace for sticker shock
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” Lawmakers are bracing for sticker shock when they kick off their 120-day session on Wednesday, tackling health care reform and transportation and seeking ways to help repair crumbling school buildings while avoiding tax increases.
“I don’t think the price tag will be that high, but there is some sticker shock,” said Senate President Peter Groff, a Democrat from Denver.
House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said lawmakers will try to make better use of existing revenues, and majority Democrats currently no plans to go to voters and ask for a tax increase.
“I think that represents a last resort,” Romanoff said.
Ritter said in November he may ask voters to approve a tax increase for one of Colorado’s big needs, but he wasn’t sure yet which one it would be. Since then, he has become more reluctant and is waiting for his transportation and health care committees to make final recommendations before deciding on spending priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said Democrats aren’t sure what they want, even though they control the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.
“The governor wants to raise a tax, but he doesn’t know which one, and he’s going to use the revenue, but he doesn’t know what for,” McElhany said.
A legislative task force studying ways to provide health coverage for 792,000 uninsured in Colorado is submitting five proposals for lawmakers to consider, with cost estimates ranging from $980 million to $27 billion a year. Supporters said the state is already spending up to $30 billion a year on health care and they believe government can save money by spending it more wisely.
A committee convened by Ritter to study transportation recommended spending $1.5 billion a year to beef up main transportation corridors, address impacts from increased oil and gas drilling and improve transit.
A committee studying education reform wants to expand full-day kindergarten and increase teacher training.
Lawmakers are also promising to provide funding to fix up school buildings after learning the state has not been doing required inspections of school construction for decades.
Because of the state’s strict tax and spending limits, legislators said they are looking for new ways to pay for new projects.
The transportation panel recommended increasing vehicle registration fees an average $100, increasing the motor fuel tax, increasing sales and use taxes and increasing the severance tax on minerals to compensate for expanded oil and gas drilling. Some of those increases would require voter approval.
The panel studying education reform said teachers need higher pay, students need more preschooling and the state needs to track struggling students to keep them from dropping out.
Panel members estimated it would cost about $27 million to expand Colorado preschool programs to accommodate 8,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-old children who are eligible but cannot get in for lack of space.
About 16,000 attend now. The panel estimated cost of making kindergarten available to every child in the state at $230 million.
The panel also wants the state to put $10 million into a fund that would allow districts to attract, retain and support high-quality educators.
Panel members said they didn’t know how much some of the other recommendations would cost, including the price for setting up a computer system to track student progress and improving statewide proficiency tests.
Ritter had told them not to worry about how to pay for the programs, saying it could stifle creative thinking.
Environmentalists unveiled an agenda that includes a proposed $32 million in tax breaks for people who use renewable energy, but they didn’t say how they would pay for it.
Romanoff and Groff have a plan that would use revenues from a 1876 federal land grant to Colorado to help fund school repairs and new school construction, saying students can’t learn if they have to attend school in buildings that aren’t safe.
Groff and Romanoff said it makes sense to start with less expensive projects and try to live within the state’s budget this year.
For health care, they want to start with 180,000 uninsured children who already qualify for Medicaid but aren’t enrolled.
For public education, they hope to improve teacher training, provide more kindergarten and preschool and provide more vocational education classes.
On transportation, they want to focus on maintenance after the bridge collapse in Minnesota that killed 13 people and injured about 100 others.
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There is a lot of pent up energy among hikers and bikers to get into the high country, but snow fields, avalanche debris and high stream crossings are presenting challenges later than usual. Forest rangers with the Aspen-Sopris District provide trail condition reports that are updated each week so hikers and backpackers aren’t caught unaware.