It took eight days longer than usual, but the Colorado legislature finally has a budget to debate. The massive spending bill was introduced in the Senate yesterday. But getting to that point was not an easy process.
The budget was actually due more than a week ago. But Senate Democrats and House Republicans just couldn’t come to a deal. After days and days of wrangling, by yesterday morning Democratic budget committee member Pat Steadman was frustrated
STEADMAN: "I feel like we’ve been strung along for quite a while. We were sitting at the committee table across the street, just whittling away, making little cuts, refusing to talk about the important things that are really the big sticking points."
Those “big sticking points” weren’t actually big dollar amounts, in a budget that totals 19 billion dollars. Lawmakers agreed early on major cuts to education and other departments. The changes they fought over were worth a few tens of millions of dollars. But Representative Cheri Gerou, a Republican on the budget committee, says those items are important.
GEROU: "Those millions of dollars that you’re seeing the arguments about? Those are programs that impact individual lives and we all care a lot about those individual lives."
As negotiations stalled, the Senate threatened to take an unprecedented step and introduce its own budget. Then, midday yesterday, word came: the House would deal. As lawmakers involved in the negotiations huddled on the Senate floor, Senate president Brandon Shaffer took stock. There will be many formal votes on this budget, but in a way this was the most important tally.
SHAFFER: "Bill, you’re okay? John? Cheri, you’re okay? Mary? Pat?..."
Here’s what’s everyone was okay with. Republicans will drop their push to let local governments cut employee salaries. And they’ll let the state keep a chunk of money it usually refunds to businesses. Democrats agree to reinstate tax exemptions for certain software and agricultural products. Exemptions they took away last year.
In general, the budget isn’t too different from what Governor John Hickenlooper originally proposed, although education cuts won’t be as deep. Yesterday Hickenlooper said everyone made sacrifices in the negotiations.
HICKENLOOPER: "I think when you talk to the Senate leadership and the House leadership and the Joint Budget Committee, no one’s happy, but everybody’s relieved."
HODGE: “'Kay, the motion before us is closing the budget. Is there objection?"
Actually, the Joint Budget Committee sounded pretty happy when they met yesterday afternoon to officially hand the budget off to the rest of the legislature. Republican Senator Kent Lambert.
LAMBERT: "I’ve heard from just here on Twitter that there is white smoke coming up from the top of the building."
It was a lighthearted close to a process marked by very public frustration and recrimination. Afterward, at a press conference with legislative leaders, Senate President Brandon Shaffer said that’s water under the bridge.
SHAFFER: "I think that memories are short around here. We have to move on to the next hurdle. We have a lot of work ahead of us and we can only get that work done if we work together."
Paradoxically -- all the partisan fighting to put together a budget package actually has a very bipartisan result. Top Republicans say they will vote for this budget, something they haven’t done in recent years when Democrats controlled every stage of the process. That includes the man who held out longest on this budget deal, House Speaker Frank McNulty.
MCNULTY: "If everything comes together as planned, it will be the first budget I’ve voted for."
The budget still has a long way to go. House Democrats are already criticizing the deal and they’ll get a chance to try to change things soon. The Senate is expected to send the budget to them next week.