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Seventy-two page amendment to Sustaining Rural Colorado bill gets the job done on Senate floor

DENVER — An eleventh-hour save for a controversial bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg looks primed to get through the House before the 71st General Assembly shuts down on Wednesday.

However, Senate Bill 17-267, known as the Sustainability of Rural Colorado Act, doesn’t look anything like its original form.

In fact, the original 57-page version — that some argue is far from a single-subject bill and sought to pump about $400 million into rural school districts, $300 million into rural communities for road projects and inject millions more into rural hospitals by way of Medicaid and the Hospital Provider Fee (HPF) — is now 76 pages and includes 72 pages of strike below text.

Strike below text is actually an amendment to the bill that eliminates everything below the bill’s enacting clause and replaces it with all new text. In other words, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Colorado” is the only thing that remains from the original version.

Sonnenberg, who represents a big chunk of northeast Colorado, said during Senate floor debate on Friday that many days were spent in his office with stakeholders yelling and screaming at each other.

He’s said previously that this bill could cost him the next election, as it has divided the Republican Caucus and constituents over whether it violates the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) by giving lawmakers hundreds of millions more to spend without voter approval and whether it is constitutional.

“I feel cheated,” Gregory Golyansky, president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers (CUT), told Complete Colorado previously. “Not just as CUT president, but also as a taxpayer. They got elected on a certain promise, and they’re going back on that promise.”

The bill replaces cuts to hospitals that were written into the long-bill to balance the budget and helps fund schools, roads and hospitals in rural communities.

Republican lawmakers don’t have a problem with the what as much as they do the how. It had enough support to initially get out of the Finance Committee.

Sonnenberg almost killed the bill himself after that because he couldn’t get Democrats to negotiate, but postponed instead, saying he wasn’t giving up.

His efforts paid off, at least for now.

Friday, it made its way through Senate Appropriations after the chairman of that committee, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, (R-Berthoud), tried to keep it from being heard. Sonnenberg, again, garnered enough support to overrule Lundberg with a seldom-used rule that allows the committee to vote whether to hear a bill.

The bill passed on a 5-2 vote with Lundberg and Sen. Kent Lambert, (R-Colorado Springs) the only opposition.

Lundberg told Complete Colorado Thursday, it wasn’t just a bad bill it was a constitutionally bad bill. But on the Senate Floor Friday, Sonnenberg disagreed.

“If I for one minute thought this bill was unconstitutional I would not vote for it,” Sonnenberg said.

The bill passed the Senate on a voice vote. Third reading is scheduled for Monday, and then it is expected to be read into the House, where it will likely pass Third Reading on Tuesday, just in time for lawmakers to adjourn for the season.

Sen. Nancy Todd, (D-Arapahoe) said the bill was the result of bipartisan efforts that proves compromise works. She praised the bill’s sponsors for fighting to save rural Colorado.

However, those opposed don’t believe the Democrats gave up much of anything, with the big issue being the Hospital Provider Fee (HPF) being reclassified as an enterprise fund.

The fee, which is assessed on all hospitals, is a varied amount for every night someone sleeps in a hospital bed. The revenue is then used to reimburse hospitals to sustain and expand Medicaid programs and for the Colorado Indigent Care Program.

For the past two years, Democrats have tried to convert the fee, which currently goes into a segregated cash fund, to an enterprise fund. Because it generates more than $800 million a year in revenue, it causes the state to hit its revenue cap under the TABOR. For the past couple of years, taxpayers have received refunds because of the excess.

If it were converted, it would no longer fall under TABOR. Instead, a 13-member board appointed by the Governor, would control what is equal to about 10 percent of the state’s total expenditures. The conversion would free up space under the cap, allowing the state to collect more and spend more.

In the original version of SB 267, Sonneberg proposed reducing the state spending limit under TABOR by $670 million. Democrats refused, so he cut it in half to $335 million. Democrats still refused, leading to more frustration.

“If we’re not going to have any negotiations in good faith, then what they have done has not been in good faith,” Sonneberg said previously. “If we’re not going to have negotiations, then there is no point in having a damn bill.”

Monday, Sonnenberg announced the new reduction at $200 million.

Lundberg along with a handful of other Republicans say the bill is in violation of the Colorado Constitution.

Under TABOR, Lundberg said, any funds that are initially governed by TABOR and are reclassified must lower the spending cap by an equal amount. In this case, SB 267 will free up $870 million of cap space but only lower spending by $200 million, essentially giving lawmakers $670 million more a year to spend without asking voters.

Sen. Tim Neville, (R-Littleton argues against SB17-267 on the Senate Floor Friday.
Sen. Tim Neville, (R-Littleton) argues against SB17-267 on the Senate Floor Friday.

Sen. Tim Neville, (R-Littleton) was one of the few Friday to speak in opposition, saying in addition to the HPF reclassification, the bill also violates the debt restrictions under TABOR by using Certificates of Participation to mortgage Colorado without voter approval.

“We are hanging for sale signs on every building we own,” Neville said.


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