Fenberg-Holbert Brokered Deal Snags $106M For Roads, Sidesteps Senate Budget Battle

<p>(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)</p>
<p>Vehicles are stuck in traffic on Interstate 70 just east of Floyd Hill on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.</p>
Photo: Interstate 70 traffic I-70 | Nov. 2015 (Staff)
Vehicles are stuck in traffic on Interstate 70 just east of Floyd Hill on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.

After weeks of partisan wrangling, delay tactics and a lawsuit, many Capitol watchers were ready for an especially prolonged debate when the state Senate took up Colorado’s budget. The expected imbroglio didn’t materialize.

A last-minute deal to put more money into transportation funding — a top priority for Republicans — helped prevent any parliamentary delays on the budget and hours-long debates on potential changes to the budget.

Democratic Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and Minority Leader Chris Holbert brokered the compromise to adopt an amendment authored by Colorado Springs Republican Owen Hill.

“Over the last couple of weeks, probably not a surprise, but everybody could probably agree that things have been tense in the Senate,” Fenberg said. “We also agree that it’s not necessarily in the people’s benefit or for the benefit of the state of Colorado for having tricks and sort of turning the Senate into a place where we’re not able to talk and actually work as senators across the aisle on solving some of the big problems for Coloradans.”

Under the plan, Senate Democrats agreed to add $106 million for transportation, to bring the total to $336 million. The money would not be specifically slated for certain infrastructure projects or transit.

“It helps me as the minority leader when my members feel like they’re being listened to, their perspective is respected,” Holbert said. He added that it’s “particularly challenging when we represent about 45 percent of the Senate districts in Colorado, to be able to show nothing in return, our constituents start to feel very aggravated.”

Photo: COLEG 2019 Budget Compromise | Fenberg &amp; Holbert - BBirkeland
Democratic Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and Republican Minority Leader Chris Holbert.

It’s not immediately clear where the additional money will come from, that would be left up to the executive branch, but Fenberg and Holbert said it wouldn’t reduce money for Gov. Jared Polis’ plan for the state to pay for full-day kindergarten across Colorado.

“I don’t think anyone in our caucuses would support that or is asking for that,” Holbert said.

There’s another proposal on the table this legislative session to ask voters whether the state should be able to keep extra money beyond the constitutional TABOR spending cap. Part of that additional money would be slated for transportation funding, although much of the GOP has pushed back on efforts to make changes to TABOR.

What Budget Deal Means for Final Part of Session

Heading into the budget debate, the Senate has been under particular stress. In early March, a judge gave Senate Republicans a victory in their fight to slow down the pace of Democratic-backed legislation this session. The Denver District Court issued a temporary restraining order against Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia and Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell for their use of five computers that read text aloud at top speed to fulfill a Republican demand that a 2,000-page bill be read at length.

It was the first time in state history a Senate president had been sued by colleagues. Democrats plan to appeal the court’s ruling, but any resolution to the matter will likely come after the session adjourns.

Minority leader Holbert acknowledged that the court’s ruling gave the minority more leverage in negotiations.

“In Colorado, we have constituents who are begging us to be as brave as the Texas Democrats are. The Wisconsin Democrats who left the capitol and shut down the process. We don’t have that option in our constitution,” Holbert said.

The only available leverage was asking for bills to be read at length. Holbert, however, is happy that he won’t hear the budget read aloud, “I think that would have taken somewhere around 10 hours,” he said.

While Republicans hadn’t threatened to do that, a few days ago, Hill, who has requested various bills be read at length, told CPR he was considering it for the budget bill.

“Everything has been Democrats saying ‘my way or the highway.’ The only thing we can do is at least slow things down and highlight how we’re spending $34 billion,” he said.

The state budget is the only bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass each session, which made these negotiations especially important. Any drawn-out quarrels over the long bill could have thrown a wrench into the majority’s longer-term plans.

Democrats, who gained full control of the legislature in November, have an ambitious agenda. They are proposing updated oil and gas regulations focused on public health and safety, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, new carbon emission standards and a stricter gun law that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns if someone is deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The Senate’s budget compromise would still need to pass the House and Fenberg said he hopes the bipartisan deal can shift the tone in the final part of the session and allow the Senate to go back to debating policies, rather than procedure.

“Whatever happens to the bill happens, and then we can move on to the next issue for the people of Colorado, rather than getting to a breaking point where we are doing things that I think everybody would agree we don’t need to be doing, reading bills at length and instead disagree just like we’re really good at doing.”