Lots of legislative wishes, limited amount of money

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Health care, transportation and education top the agenda for this year’s state legislative session, but any changes that lawmakers decide to make will likely be relatively benign, at least from the standpoint of the business community.
“Health care is still the No. 1 concern for everybody in the arena”, said Tony Gagliardi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, whose most recent survey showed that 74 percent of its members considered cost to be the most important problem facing the health care system.
The 208 commission, a “blue ribbon” group that was mandated by the legislature to examine Colorado’s health care system and make comprehensive recommendations for reform, is scheduled to deliver its report by the end of the month.
“There will be opportunities for the legislature to make some fixes that won’t cost a lot,” Gagliardi said. “But anything more ambitious may be deferred.”
The reason, he said, is because it’s an election year and neither party will be eager to put a complex, controversial and expensive issue on the ballot.
“The entire ballgame in covering the uninsured in Colorado is almost exclusively within the foul lines of small business,” Gagliardi said. “If government can’t help small business owners with cost, then small business owners can’t help the government with coverage.”
Kelli Fritts, associate state director for advocacy at the AARP, agrees with Gagliardi.
“We may not see any comprehensive reform this year, but there will be some changes,” she said. “We’d like to see the legislature pass a bill that would forbid insurers to deny health care coverage on the basis of prior history. That would cost the state nothing. In fact, it would have a positive impact on the state budget.”
But insurers, Fritts said, would likely oppose such a bill.
Transportation is another area of continuing concern.
A blue ribbon panel on transportation funding said the state needs between $500 million and $2 billion annually, in addition to present projected spending for the next 30 years, to catch up with maintenance and meet the need for new roads.
The state’s budget cannot fund such an ambitious program without new taxes, and while the legislature determines the transportation budget, the state transportation commission determines how and where the money will be spent.
Les Gruen, who was recently appointed to the commission by Gov. Bill Ritter to represent Colorado Springs, El Paso County and the rest of District 9, was hesitant to comment about the substance of the report, but acknowledged the problems that the state faces with transportation funding.
“A lot depends on what the governor chooses to do,” Gruen said. “We’ll see whether he pushes transportation or health care.”
The Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. published a report entitled “Toward a More Competitive Colorado,” which examined Colorado’s multiple fiscal dilemmas and said that the state devoted only 6.2 percent of its budget to transportation during 2007, less than half of the 12.7 percent allocated during 1980.
State Sen. Andy McElhany agrees with Gruen that transportation and health care are the top issues. While the minority party is working on proposals to deal with both issues, and is “ready to work with the Democrats — where possible,” McElhany fears a potential “minefield” for business.
“We anticipate legislation that favors organized labor and trail lawyers over employers — legislation that would impose new regulations and taxes on even the smallest businesses,” he said. “We’re not optimistic, but we’re ready to do battle.”
Former Speaker of the House Chuck Berry, who represented Colorado Springs in the legislature during much of the 1980s and 1990s, now heads the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.
“There are some major issues — health care, transportation, higher ed,” he said. “But there are also bills that may affect the basic cost of doing business: worker’s comp, unemployment insurance, even immigration enforcement.”
Berry is uncertain whether any major tax increase will be proposed.
“The governor has told the Joint Budget Committee that he only want to see one tax issue on the ballot — whether it’s transportation, health care or higher education,” he said. “But there are some indications that he may not push for anything, because of some adverse polling data.”
Berry said he is pleased that the governor has promised to sign a bill prohibiting state employees from striking, which would clarify his controversial executive order giving state employees the right to collectively bargain.
“A strike by state employees in certain areas — in regulatory agencies, in transportation for example — could be very damaging to the state’s economy,” Barry said.
CACI is particularly concerned with legislation that would affect the cost of doing business, and Berry said there are several such bills every year.
“There are 100 legislators, and every one of them can introduce five bills, so there are bound to be some bad ones,” he said. “But we’ve been able to work productively with the (Democratic) leadership, with Speaker (Andrew) Romanoff, with Senate Majority Leader Peter Groff. When we’ve been able to demonstrate that a bill would be harmful to Colorado business, they’ve been helpful.”
Romanoff said that his top three priorities are jobs, schools and health care.
He said that education is of paramount importance to maintaining and enhancing Colorado’s business climate.
“When we talk to businesses considering relocation, they’re pleased with our regulatory and tax environment,” he said. “But an educated, skilled work force is at the top of their list.”
Romanoff said that Colorado has imported skilled, educated workers from other states, but that, he argues, is unsustainable.
“In the long run, it won’t work,” he said. “And (relocating) businesses are concerned about the quality of public schools, and the availability of higher education. We’ve figured out that we’re not a big enough state to bribe companies to move here, so, we’re trying to target investment in our areas of strength — aerospace, biosciences and renewable energy.”
Romanoff said that the majority Democrats would support a phased reduction in the business personal property tax, which would “let 30,000 businesses off the hook.” He also promised to simplify the corporate income tax, saving companies time and aggravation.
But when asked whether any tax increases would be proposed for the November ballot, Romanoff was noncommittal.
“I don’t begin with the premise that we have to put something on the ballot. Our first job is to balance the budget, and then make the determination,” he said. “And I don’t think that we ought to be guided by the polls. If we’d waited for favorable polls before putting Referendum C to a vote two years ago, that ship would still be at the dock.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com